Review: ‘Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’

Eve Sigall

Eve Sigall

The angel has alighted, and if it lands short of the revelation some were expecting, it is nonetheless a remarkable creature. Tony Kushner’s much-anticipated “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” presented for the first time in its complete seven-hour form, is a heady swirl of inspired fancy, harrowing realism and outrageous humor, weighed down only by an unfortunate lack of focus in its second half. Sharp-eyed tightening is needed if this work is to achieve its considerable potential.

Still, the breadth of Kushner’s imagination alone is cause for rejoicing. Blend in the flights of poetry with the cultural scope of his vision and “Angels” almost–but a rather large almost–justifies its length.

“Angels,” set in New York City, 1985, revolves around two couples –one gay, one straight– whose lives become intertwined through circumstance, tragedy and longing.

Joe Pitt (Jeffrey King) is a young lawyer, a conservative Republican, a Mormon, an idealist and a closet homosexual. The growing emotional distance between him and his wife Harper (Cynthia Mace) has driven the fragile, agoraphobic woman to Valium-induced distraction.

Given to what appear to be elaborate hallucinations–which, in Kushner’s world, become virtually indistinguishable from reality — Harper spends an inordinate amount of time in an ozone-depleted (and imaginary) Antarctica, accompanied by a sort of cosmic travel agent. Her descent into madness, both heartbreaking and comic, is only the most obvious manifestation of the escape sought by the troubled characters populating the play.

Another escapee is Louis Ironson (Joe Mantello), a sensitive, Jewish intellectual who walks out on his lover Prior Walter (Stephen Spinella) when Prior becomes covered with “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death”–Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.

By his own description, Louis is a man “who can’t incorporate sickness into his sense of how things should go.” Credit both playwright and actor with making this character extremely sympathetic, despite his unconscionable actions.

And then there’s Prior, whose flamboyance is matched only by his despair and who, during a critical point in his illness, is visited by an angel (Ellen McLaughlin) and enlisted as a more than slightly reluctant prophet. (A prophet of what won’t be revealed here.)

The lives of the couples become entangled in unlikely ways. The utterly incompatible Joe and Louis become lovers, for starters, but even stranger is the connection that comes in the form of the play’s most outrageous conceit: The character of Roy Cohn (Ron Leibman). Dying of AIDS (but calling it liver cancer) , haunted (literally) by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, Cohn is the embodiment of political evil and monstrous greed–and Kushner’s symbol of the Reagan era.

But such tangible connections and descriptions imply a narrative far more conventional than “Angels.” Prior’s fever dreams (or religious visions) cross over into Harper’s drug-induced hallucinations. Characters converge in Antarctica and heaven, as well as realms more commonplace.

The first part of “Angels,””Millennium Approaches,” had a lengthy development process– including a workshop here at the Taper Too–before its acclaimed productions in San Francisco last year and London earlier this year. The process worked: “Millennium” is pinpoint sharp, an evocative piece of theater that flirts with anarchy but never crosses over. Playwright, director and cast know just where they’re going.

And they almost get there. Part II, called “Perestroika” and presented here for the first time in a fully staged production, has more than a few scenes that rival Part I in power and grace. But flab dilutes the effect, and a conclusion that might have been acceptable in a play with fewer preceding high points is here rather anemic.

What comes through clearly in Part I (but alternately muddled and blunt in Part II) are Kushner’s contrasting themes of loss and rebuilding, paralysis and momentum, selfishness and compassion. To accomplish his ends, Kushner has written a collection of indelible characters whose pairings and confrontations often startle in their humor and pain.

Even in Part II, Kushner, director Oskar Eustis (assisted by co-director Tony Taccone) and the cast pull off riveting moments. Visited by a gloating Ethel Rosenberg (played by Kathleen Chalfant) on his deathbed, a seemingly delirious Cohn begs her for comfort. The poignance of the ghost softly singing a Jewish lullaby to the man who helped send her to her death is broken–but topped in theatrical power–when Cohn sneers “I finally got Ethel Rosenberg to sing.” A subsequent scene in which Rosenberg guides Louis in saying Kaddish over Cohn’s body surpasses even the death scene in its tenderness and humor.

So lovely are such moments that the disappointments of Part II seem particularly frustrating. When it comes time to explain the angelic presence, the play becomes obvious and plodding, losing the ethereal quality that invigorates so much of what comes before.

What can’t be faulted, though, is the cast, from King’s tragically conflicted closet case to Mace’s breathtaking Harper. Spinella is more than capable of handling everything demanded by his difficult role of the doomed prophet who survives on humor, determination and anger. Mantello, Chalfant (who also plays Joe’s mother) and K. Todd Freeman are no less memorable.

And last but certainly not least is Leibman, who just might have found the stage role of a lifetime in Roy Cohn. It would be difficult to imagine a character that would give the actor more leeway to swagger along the line of excess.

It is one of “Angels’s” successes that a character who virtually defines human corruption is both charismatic and hilarious enough to enthrall an audience for seven hours. But it is one of the play’s most telling failures that this powerful figure is permitted a final exit (postdeath scene) that is nearly as weak as his entrance is strong.

John Conklin’s set suits the play quite well, the bare wooden stage filled with trap doors and rising platforms, and actors moving furniture and props on and off stage with nearly every scene change.

Backdrop is a stone-colored facade of a nondescript government building where much of the action takes place. In the thrilling climax to Part I, the facade is split wide as the angel descends amid the wonderfully effective combination of Mel Marvin’s blaring music and Pat Collins’ flashing lights. Jon Gottlieb’s sound system couldn’t be improved upon.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

(Mark Taper Forum; 760 seats; $ 64 for Parts One and Two)

Production

A Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum presentation, in association with the New York Shakespeare Festival, of a two-part play in six acts by Tony Kushner. Directed by Oskar Eustis with Tony Taccone.

Creative

Sets, John Conklin; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lights, Pat Collins; sound, Jon Gottlieb; original music, Mel Marvin. Opened, reviewed Nov. 8, 1992; runs through Nov. 29.

Cast

Hannah Pitt ... Kathleen Chalfant Belize ... K. Todd Freeman Joe Pitt ... Jeffrey King Roy Cohn ... Ron Leibman Harper Pitt ... Cynthia Mace Louis Ironson ... Joe Mantello The Angel ... Ellen McLaughlin Prior Walter ... Stephen Spinella Heavenly Attendants ... Pauline Lepor,
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