I saw *Angels In America: Millennium Approaches* on Broadway on 4/19/18. *Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes* is a set of two plays by Tony Kushner, written in 1991 and done on Broadway in 1993. This production marks the 25th anniversary of its Broadway premiere.
Richard and I saw the two plays "live" in movie theaters the summer before. I put the word "live" in quotes because while the plays were filmed live from the National Theatre, they weren't screened live. We loved the performances and I decided not to see it when it came to Broadway, since I felt I'd seen it already. But then I got access to tickets for $45, so figured what did I have to lose. Now I've bought a ticket for the second play, *Angels In America: Perestroika,* in May.
I don't think it's extreme to say that these are the greatest American plays of our generation. I can't think of another work of theatre that's as ambitious and also so entertaining and gratifying. He bites off a lot, but it's definitely not more than he can chew. Just in terms of length, the first play is three and a half hours long, and the second is four hours long. But it's in their scope that they really show Kushner's ambition: he examines such issues as love, politics, illness, faith, responsibility, identity, sexism, racism, homophobia, so many other intense issues. But he discusses them in the context of the lives of the characters, you never feel like it's the author speaking, it's always the characters speaking.
The plays were directed by Marianne Elliott, who won Tonys for Best Director of a play for *War Horse* and *The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time.* Both shows were beautifully directed, but I wouldn't exactly say that the writing was so extraordinary. They were both very effective and full of impact, but I think they owed a lot of their effectiveness to Elliott's direction, not as much to the scripts. It was a thrill to see her working with such strong material. She illuminated it, put her own creative stamp on it, but never pulled the spotlight back onto herself.
Andrew Garfield played the central character, Prior Walter, a young gay man with AIDS. He was extraordinary, so full of passion and intelligence and energy. The plays only make sense if the audience cares about Prior, and Garfield really turned him into a lovable, extraordinary person. I loved spending all that time with him.
Nathan Lane played Roy Cohn. It was the death of Cohn that inspired Kushner to write the plays - - Kushner had a long-standing disgust for the man, chief counsel for Joseph McCarthy. He was a closeted gay man who had nothing but contempt for the gay community. But Kushner was disturbed by the tone of some of the obituaries he read when Cohn died. The press seemed to revel in his long, ugly battle with AIDS. Kusher said that he was surprised to find himself defending Roy Cohn, and examining those complicated feelings, he decided to write about it. (Somewhat off topic, Cohn in turn became a mentor to Donald Trump.)
Lane was unbelievable. I was lucky enough to see him in *The Iceman Cometh* at BAM a few years ago, and seeing him play Cohn was on a par with that. Here was an actor at the peak of his powers, tearing into a role worthy of his skill and talent. It has an added poignancy with Lane because he made his career (and exists in the popular imagination) as someone who excels in wacky comedy. What a joy to see him doing drama, and doing it so well.
I wasn't familiar with the other actors, and with the exception of Pace, they were all repeats of the English production I'd seen the year before. Denise Gough played Harper Pitt and nailed all of the bewilderment, sweetness, and rage of the character. James McArdle played Louis, Prior's boyfriend, and his was one of my favorite performances. He was hilarious, touching, combative, and didn't shy away from the unappealing aspects of the character. Susan Brown played Mother Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg, she was strong and full of flavor. I make her sound like black coffee, and that's actually a pretty apt comparison. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett played Belize, and though he held his own with the rest of the cast, I maybe could have asked for a little more presence. If I may compare him to the other two people I've seen in the role, he didn't have the wry, slow burn of Jeffrey Wright nor the outsize diffidence of Billy Porter - - he chose a not entirely satisfying middle ground. But like I said, he held his own.
Lee Pace played Joe Pitt, the young Mormon lawyer who's mentored by Cohn (and is married to Harper, and the son of Mother Pitt). Pace was the one new member of the cast when the show moved to Broadway, the role had been played by Russell Tovey in London. Tovey was more withdrawn and alienated, Pace was more present and outwardly conflicted. Both are valid choices, I don't know that I could choose one over the other.
Amanda Lawrence played the Angel and Prior's nurse, and it was in the depiction of the Angel that director Elliott really broke the mold. The Angel is typically played by a strong, broad woman in her 40s, wearing a white gown and wings and suspended on cables. Lawrence appears to be in her 40s, but her wig, makeup, and body language give her the appearance of a woman in her 70s. The Angel appears onstage for the first time in the last minutes of *Millennium Approaches* and the way that she was assembled before our eyes, with a team of actors lifting her up and manipulating her wings, was astonishing. I can't wait to see more of her in Part Two.
Here's a trailer for the National Theatre production:
APPENDIX: MY HISTORY WITH *ANGELS*
I first saw *Angels* on HBO in 2003, such a beautiful production. I own it on DVD and have watched it many times.
I next saw it onstage in 2011 at the Signature Theatre. Richard and I had tickets for Part One in early January and Part Two later that month - - we were unable to use the Part One tickets, so we saw Part Two in late January and Part One in March. Five of the eight actors had left the show, and three of the replacements were MUCH stronger than the originals (I marked them with a * below). That was unexpected. The show was in a much smaller space than the current Broadway production, and it gained something from the intimacy.
I also saw an opera adaptation in June of 2017, which I didn't like at all. You can read my review in my archives, if you like.
Director: Mike Nichols
Prior Walter: Justin Kirk
Roy Cohn: Al Pacino
Louis: Ben Shenkman
Mother Pitt / Ethel Rosenberg: Meryl Streep
Joe Pitt: Patrick Wilson
Harper Pitt: Mary Louise Parker
Belize: Jeffrey Wright
The Angel: Emma Thompson
Signature Theatre, January 2011
Director: Michael Greif
Prior Walter: Christian Borle
Roy Cohn: Frank Wood
Louis: Zachary Quinto
Mother Pitt / Ethel Rosenberg: Robin Bartlett
Joe Pitt: Bill Heck
Harper Pitt: Zoe Kazan
Belize: Billy Porter
The Angel: Robin Weigert
Signature Theatre, March 2011
The same as above, with these changes:
Prior Walter: Michael Urie *
Louis: Adam Driver *
Mother Pitt / Ethel Rosenberg: Lynne McCollough
Harper Pitt: Keira Keeley *
The Angel: Sofia Jean Gomez