The superb new Broadway production of “Angels in America” from London brought back my first encounter with the work at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993.
I had traveled from New Haven to see the two-part play on a Saturday, all day, by myself. I was a grad student at the Yale School of Drama and felt completely justified in splurging on orchestra tickets for the afternoon and evening performances.
I was considering writing about the much-talked-about play for a chapter of my dissertation, but that was really only a pretext. I needed “Angels in America” even though I wasn’t sure I could handle the experience.
AIDS was still more or less a death sentence in 1993. My uncle had died from the disease in 1987. I had seen older friends and acquaintances wither and vanish from the world. Chronological luck had kept me safe — I hadn’t known a time as an adult when AIDS wasn’t a threat — but life felt precarious.
The scene after the first intermission in “Part One: Millennium Approaches” immediately tested my resolve. I remember crouching in my seat as I considered making a furtive exit after Prior, his illness gaining ground, soils himself with blood while Louis, his overwhelmed lover, gasps, “Oh help. Oh help. Oh God oh God oh God help me I can’t I can’t I can’t.” My own emotional reaction was completely physicalized: I couldn’t breathe.
“Angels in America” is crammed with laugh lines. They can seem a tad compulsive and the audience’s hilarity can feel annoyingly disproportionate, but these wisecracks and rejoinders served a necessary psychological function when the play had its initial run during the plague years. Kushner’s generous comedy reminded us that tragedy, no matter how pervasive, is never the whole story. The lighter parts of us aren’t completely erased by darkness. It was this laughter that allowed me to hold on until the end of the play.
Flash-forward to the Neil Simon Theatre, where the National Theatre production opened Sunday. I had seen Marianne Elliott’s production in London last summer and was blown away by how Kushner’s masterwork spoke directly to the crisis we’re facing today in Donald Trump’s America. In particular, the character of Roy Cohn, incarnated by Nathan Lane with insolent glee, seemed to channel the voice of the current political zeitgeist.
I anticipated taking pleasure in Kushner’s angry prescience. I longed to bathe again in his fury at the ideologues and ideologies that have made such an unequal mess of our society. And I looked forward to the reassurance that I was on the right side of history and that everyone who didn’t share my beliefs was on the wrong.
But something else happened. I left knowing that we’re all in this together and that, justifiably furious as we may be, if we don’t come together through love and forgiveness, we’re doomed. The polarizing tactics of the White House cannot be duplicated if they are to be defeated. Anger is a potent catalyst, but it’s not a final answer.
The person sitting next to me at the theater helped me through her compassionate presence. I invited Rhea Cohen, the mother of a friend of mine, Adam Balzano, who died in 1993 at age 29. She was his primary caretaker, his stalwart ally and his heartbroken champion throughout his illness. Her grief led her to activism. She was a member of a group of mothers who banded together to advocate for their children and the children of other mothers battling AIDS. Death only deepened the bonds and determination of these women.
Twenty-five years is a long time, but for a parent who loses a child, the reality of the loss is ever-present. Medical advances and civil rights victories were hastened by the pain of family members and friends. Society changed because aggrieved communities insisted that we come together and do better. The inspiring student-led March for Our Lives demonstrations Saturday was born of this same impulse.
Kushner’s hopeful political conviction retains its urgency but seems even more persuasive than before. Kushner has revamped “Part Two: Perestroika” for the New York production, pruning and reconfiguring the sprawling text. These adjustments combined with Elliott’s exquisitely balanced production helped me to better understand Prior’s comic struggle as he comes to terms with the burden and blessing that life has assigned him.
Andrew Garfield may not get all the details of Prior’s character exactly right. The flamboyance can seem like borrowed clothes. But the role’s spiritual outline is luminously rendered. Garfield offers himself, body and soul, as a vessel for Kushner’s vision.
James McArdle, his accent screwed on more tightly in New York than it was in London, has grown more convincing as Louis Ironson, Prior’s deserting lover. McArdle sensitively measures the gap between Louis’ political ideals and his personal actions. We understand him too well to abandon him. The character’s intellectual self-righteousness and hypocrisy are imperfections that make him no more or less fallibly human than Joe Pitt (Lee Pace), the closeted, right-wing Mormon lawyer with whom he has an affair despite all the irreconcilable political differences.
Lane’s titanic portrayal of Cohn, a Broadway performance for the ages, voices the antagonistic, ruthless, predatory, exploitative side of our animal natures that no amount of progress has been able to tame. The reason this Roy Cohn seems so alive is not because his protégé Donald Trump has put him back in the news. It’s because his unadulterated qualities are always with us. Lane ferociously reminds us what we are up against.
But my gratitude for this production of “Angels” was most acutely felt in two hospital scenes. The first involves Prior, who through the circular logic of playwriting, has been accompanied to the hospital by Hannah Pitt (a searing Susan Brown), Joe’s mother from Salt Lake City. He imagines how she must view him, a gay man dying of AIDS, but she rebukes him for his presumption: “No you can’t. Imagine. The things in my head. You don’t make assumptions about me, mister; I won’t make them about you.”
Hannah doesn’t want to be reduced to a caricature any more than Prior does. When he exposes the cause of his shame, a body covered in Kaposi‘s sarcoma lesions, this flinty woman reveals a wise heart: “It’s a cancer. Nothing more. Nothing more human than that.”
The other hospital scene revolves around Roy Cohn’s dead body. Belize (a trenchant Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Roy’s no-nonsense nurse and Prior’s loving friend, calls Louis to the room to say kaddish over their collective enemy: “He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe ... a queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet.”
This sentiment, so vital at a time when we’ve become divided into armed camps, resonates in the fierce performance of Denise Gough, who as Harper, Joe’s Valium-zonked wife, slowly comes to grips with the reality that her marriage is a mistake not just for her but for her husband as well. Harper’s own growth takes a leap when she can acknowledge Joe’s pain even as she is torn apart by her own.
The final scene at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, where Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah gather as a ragtag community, made me wish the moment could be required national viewing. Elliott’s production earns the optimism that has troubled me in the past.
Tragedy isn’t skirted, though suffering and death are held momentarily in abeyance. The lesson isn’t that progress is inevitable, but that the possibility of making things better is always available to us when we accept that what unites us is greater than what divides us.
“The Great Work Begins,” Prior concludes at the end of Kushner’s exhausting and exhilarating epic, a work that universalizes the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. No play can repair the world, but “Angels in America” offers us a timeless road map.