“The Great Work begins” … again: Angels in America in New York

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

NEW YORK — It’s one of those grand, visionary plays that change the way you think about everything  — including theatre. At least that’s how it was for me.

And so last week in New York I was keen to see the production of Angels in America that arrived on Broadway from the National Theatre in London (and won Tony Awards for best revival, and best actor and supporting actor). Would Tony Kushner’s seven-and-a-half hour epic of life in Reaganite American, “a gay fantasia on national themes,” feel as momentous 25 years later? Would its vast, crazy, swirling canvas of America in the plague years — tragedy and comedy, hallucination and gritty drama, wild dislocations of perception — be as thrilling in 2018?

I’d seen Angels In America, in the ‘90s, twice onstage and once on the small screen. True, it feels so much more alive onstage, but I’ve kept the VHS tapes of the HBO movie of 2003 next to the TV, even though the VCR is an antique beyond repair and I can’t remember how to use it anyhow.    

On a hot summer Sunday, after jazz at the Blue Note, off we went to the Neil Simon Theatre. The production, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time), is a knockout experience, with a dream cast, including Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, Denise Gough, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. But, more than that was the weird, eerie sense that a scathing indictment of the unregenerate opportunism of America in the 80s, written in the 90s, is of and for this moment.

“The world doesn’t spin backwards,” says the flamboyant black drag queen/ nurse Belize, the voice of hard-ass compassion in Angels in America. Well apparently, disturbingly, it does.

True, much has changed: what it means to be gay in the world, the evolution of AIDS beyond its death sentence in the era of Reaganite denial and homophobia. But what hasn’t is embodied in the character played by the great Nathan Lane. In a visceral, vivid, definitive performance Lane is Roy Cohn, the the ruthless, poisonous, manipulative, endlessly unscrupulous Joseph McCarthy hit man — the “polestar of human evil” who was the personal mentor to the current president of the United States.

In a provocative New York Magazine piece in April, about the Trump enablers between then and now, Frank Rich, theatre critic-turned-political columnist, wrote that when he first saw Angels in America, in its 1993 Broadway premiere, it was the delicate AIDS-stricken figure of Prior Walter, up against everything, who was central to the experience for him. In the revival, as he wrote, it’s the indelibly malignant figure of Lane’s Roy Cohn, who will do anything, anything, for power, who dominates.

I see exactly what he means. The spectre of Trump hangs over the two-part play. Angels in America is alive, and riveting, that way. Andrew Garfield is wonderful as the acerbic, struggling, terrified Prior. But you can’t take your eyes off Lane, in a performance buzzing with vitriol, even as the closeted gay homophobe lies in bed dying of AIDS. 

In Millennium Approaches, part I, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted Soviet  spy Cohn hounded to the electric chair (and who maintains a death side vigil by his hospital bed), predicts that  “history is about to crack wide open.” At the end of Part I, an Angel crashes through Prior Walter’s bedroom ceiling to announce that “the Great Work begins.”

At the start of Perestroika, part II, the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik wonders aloud “Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: can we change? in time?” Now, there’s a question. When Prior wrestles with the Angel (in a particularly physical brawl in the production), and climbs a glowing ladder to heaven, God is a notorious no-show. Garfield is immensely affecting as a man who in the end, suffering notwithstanding, just can’t renege on life. “I want more. I can’t help myself,” he says of “the addiction of being alive.” 

The groundbreaking theatricality of it all, in the 90s when I first saw it, opened my eyes to what theatre can do. And in Elliott’s production, reimagined and stunningly lit, the stage magic of a piece that moves effortlessly from hospital room to Mormon Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City to Brooklyn, Antarctica to Heaven, was just as exciting as ever.

Kushner’s re-think of the American political drama includes sexual, religious, cultural outsiders. That vision of broad inclusivity is under threat again; if history has indeed cracked open, it’s to reveal a deep, maybe bottomless, fissure in human progress. On a summer night in Trump-hating New York, it’s a terrifying thought. 

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