LONDON — For an American theatergoer in London this summer, there can be little doubt that the best new play of the year so far is Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at the National Theatre.
Yes, I’m aware that this two-part epic, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” was first produced in its entirety at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992. But it’s hard not to be astonished by the way the play’s richly expansive sociopolitical vision, which was born out of a particular historical moment, is able to shed light on contemporary crisis-ridden America. The headlines may have changed, but Kushner’s national themes haven’t lost the power to explain America to itself and the rest of the world.
For those wanting to find out what everyone in London is talking about, National Theatre Live will be screening the enthralling production at select movie theaters in our areas. “Part One: Millennium Approaches” has its first broadcast on Thursday, with “Part Two: Perestroika” beginning July 27. (For complete schedule and venue information, visit www.ntlive.com.)
The superb ensemble (featuring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey, all in top form) is one reason this revival quickly became one of the toughest tickets in London. The staging by Marianne Elliott (a Tony winner for her direction of “War Horse”) enhances the pace, rhythm and variety of the drama with the novelty of the spare yet ever-shifting production design. But it’s Kushner’s prodigious political thinking that makes the experience feel so startlingly fresh.
Tamed by pharmaceutical breakthroughs, AIDS is still wreaking disproportionate havoc on vulnerable communities, but for those able to afford medical care it’s not the death sentence it once was. “Angels in America,” however, was always so much more than a play about a disease. Kushner expanded on the pioneering dramas of Larry Kramer (“The Normal Heart”) and William Hoffman (“As Is”) by connecting the struggles of gay men with AIDS to other political battles and setting it all in a sweeping American context that clarified historical patterns with an uncanny acuteness that seems like prescience.
Certainly, no play offers a better explanation of the Donald Trump phenomenon, if only because Roy M. Cohn is such a pivotal character. Best known as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s legal henchman in the infamous anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Cohn was Trump’s mentor for many years. In “Angels,” he is a demon of right-wing homophobia and hypocrisy; even as he’s dying from AIDS, he continues to push an oppressive agenda.
“Make the law, or subject to it” is Roy’s motto. Facts are malleable. He refuses even to acknowledge that he has AIDS, because gays have no clout and he can get the formidable First Lady Nancy Reagan on the phone whenever he likes. In one memorable moment, while Roy is gloating over the memory of how he ensured that Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown, indispensable in numerous roles) wouldn’t escape the death penalty, he releases a gale of what can only be described as Nietzschean laughter.
Lane’s savage performance of this phone-barking, reality-twisting Mephistopheles, a high point in his storied career, comprehends evil as monstrous self-interest played out on the public stage. Winning excuses everything — lying, threatening, backstabbing, betraying. It’s a form of politics completely detached from justice. Kushner is apparently working on a play about Trump, but it will be hard to surpass what he’s already prophetically drawn.
“Angels” begins in 1985 as a terrifying and little-understood disease is beginning to cut a deadly trail through the gay community. Prior Walter (Garfield) shows his lover, Louis Ironson (James McArdle), the newly sprouted dark lesions on his body, fearing they foretell an early death. But Prior is even more worried about being abandoned. The every-man-for-himself creed of American politics has permeated all aspects of society, and Prior has reason to doubt his politically self-preening, helplessly neurotic partner’s capacity for selfless commitment.
Kushner’s canvas of contrapuntal narratives and colliding characters remains awe-inspiring. Here, the political is personal and the personal political to such a degree that even when the conversation turns abstractly ideological, it’s the psychological textures of the voices that reveal the most important truths. In “Angels,” character is political destiny.
Elliott’s production works with a visual palette that is openly and fluidly theatrical — it’s as though the showmanship of George C. Wolfe, the original Broadway director of “Angels,” has been crossed with the minimalism of Beckett. Ian MacNeil’s sets circulate in unexpected configurations, and the darkly celestial puppet designs of Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes entrancingly blur the line between heaven and hell.
But it’s ultimately the quality of the acting that energizes this 7 1/2-hour marathon. The responsibility Garfield feels both to Prior and to all the many lives tragically truncated by AIDS is palpable. Stephen Spinella, who won two Tony Awards for originating the role in Parts One and Two, may remain for many the real Prior, but Garfield gives himself over entirely to the anguish and the camp, the suffering and the fury. He has some trouble personalizing the character’s flamboyance early on, but as Prior’s body fails him, Garfield’s performance becomes emotionally luminous.
McArdle overplays Louis’ New York accent and manner, but as the gap between his character’s choices and conscience widens, he becomes more convincing. When McArdle delivers Louis’ 60-mile-an-hour, foot-in-mouth monologue to Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, blazingly wonderful), a nurse and dear friend of Prior’s, I even stopped fantasizing about a future Broadway cast in which Garfield would star opposite Zachary Quinto, whose performance as Louis in Michael Greif’s 2010 off-Broadway revival was the best thing about that far less effective production.
Tovey impressed me enormously for staying so true to the character of Joe Pitt, the Mormon closet case attorney whose soul Roy is determined to ensnare. There’s no showboating for this modest, mixed up, loyal right-wing foot solider, but when Joe’s reckoning comes, Tovey is searing.
Likewise, Denise Gough conveys with natural lyricism Harper Pitt’s inner distress at having married Joe, a man whose sexual secrets have her wandering around a surreal universe in a Valium haze. In Gough’s finely tuned portrayal, brokenness and dawning clarity are perfectly compatible.
But no one in the cast moved me as deeply as Brown’s Hannah Pitt, Joe’s astringent mother. She leaves Salt Lake City to straighten out her son and, through the crisscrossing logic of the play, finds herself at the bedside of Prior. Alarmed by his torment and perhaps realizing that his plight could one day be her son’s, she reassures him that the disfiguring blotches on his skin that make him feel like a pariah are only a disease: “It’s cancer. Nothing more. Nothing more human than that.”
Darkness and death are ever visible in “Angels.” But the light of characters who struggle valiantly to rise above their own limitations is miraculous.
This sprawling, two-part epic isn’t perfect. The weaknesses of “Perestroika” are particularly glaring. Prior’s adventures with the angels lumber on. When Kushner reaches for eloquence in the final scenes, he can come up short. And the Broadway-style uplift at the end, understandable when the play convened anxious theatergoers during the bleakest days of the epidemic, seems more problematic today.
Harper speaks with somber hope of “painful progress” on her night flight to San Francisco as she sets out to begin a new and more authentic life. It’s a lovely sentiment, but painful regression, as the playwright elsewhere observes, is also part of history. Contrary to what Prior says at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in the play’s final scene, the world doesn’t only spin forward. Kushner’s Roy Cohn, who keeps having the last laugh despite the ravages of his disease, must be enjoying a good guffaw at the resurgence of his ideology more than 30 years after his death.
Even so, “Angels in America” is still the most intelligent, provocative and affecting drama of my lifetime, and this production overflows with its brilliant daring. I would not have guessed that Kushner’s masterpiece would speak so urgently to our own moment of crisis. But if ever there were a time when we needed to understand our devils and wrestle an angel for a blessing, it is now.
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