The angel finally has touched down. Six months ago “Millennium Approaches,” the first part of “Angels in America,” swept Broadway off its feet while leaving two of the biggest question marks in the history of the Street: What was the fate of these characters whose interwoven lives were left tantalizingly unresolved, and, in concluding their stories, would playwright Tony Kushner equal the astonishing dramatic accomplishment of “Millennium”?
To the second question, the answer is an unqualified yes: “Perestroika” is as funny, heart-breaking, poetic and knowing as “Millennium.” With its top price of $ 120 for both parts, “Angels in America” becomes the most expensive Broadway ticket ever and, with the two halves clocking in at over seven hours, among the longest. Yet now it’s hard to imagine one without the other, for people attending “Millennium Approaches” will find it impossible to resist seeing the play’s conclusion, while anyone opting for only “Perestroika” is likely to be confused about how this amazing group of characters came together and fell apart in the first place.
That interdependence is something the producers are banking on, for at $ 3 million and counting, “Angels” has also become Broadway’s most expensive non-musical production. The gamble was riskier than anyone might have imagined, for not only did the producers plan to have the cast rehearse “Perestroika” while performing “Millennium Approaches,” but they went into it knowing, when Part One opened last spring, that Part Two still needed considerable work.
While Kushner has retained the soaring spirit of “Perestroika,” he and his collaborators — notably director George C. Wolfe — have done a masterly job of pruning, reshaping, editing and rewriting the script.
“Perestroika” begins with a variation on the comic opening and apocalyptic finale of “Millennium Approaches.” Before a red scrim, “the world’s oldest living Bolshevik” (Kathleen Chalfant playing one of several male roles) speaks about the coming change in the Soviet order. “Will the past release us?” he wonders, adding, “show me the words that will reorder the world or else keep silent”– doubtless the playwright’s own credo.
The scrim drops, revealing at center stage the winged Angel (Ellen McLaughlin) who has crashed through a bedroom ceiling to announce that the AIDS-ravaged Prior Walter (Stephen Spinella) is a prophet and that the “great work” can now begin. Downstage right, Prior’s deserting lover Louis (Joe Mantello) is seducing the vaguely reluctant Joe Pitt, a judge’s clerk and Roy Cohn protege. Downstage left, Joe’s abandoned wife, Harper (Marcia Gay Harden), filthy and in tatters, has managed to chew through the trunk of a small pine tree in Prospect Park near the Brooklyn home that, until recently, she and Joe, both Mormons, shared.
“I think I’ve finally found the secret to all that Mormon energy,” she confides to her imaginary travel agent, Mr. Lies (Jeffrey Wright). “Heartbreak. Devastation. That’s what makes people travel, migrate, build things. Heartbroken people do it, people who have lost love. Because I don’t think God loves his people any more than Joe loved me. And so their hearts were broken.”
Over the ensuing three hours, Kushner reconfigures these pairings and a few others into a series of unlikely alliances and failed rapprochements, each of which is finally heart-rending. Responding to the news that her son is gay, Joe’s stiff mother, Hannah (Chalfant), has sold her home in Salt Lake City and moved in with Harper, while volunteering at the Mormon Visitor’s Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rejected by both her son and daughter-in-law, she finds some solace comforting the hospital-bound Prior.
Also in the hospital, Prior’s friend Belize (Wright) ends up as nurse to Cohn (Ron Leibman), and though Belize regards his patient as the devil incarnate, Cohn’s access to the still-experimental drug AZT — and his unwillingness to pander to the black queen he now depends on — leads to a brutally funny relationship of convenience.
Lingering at Cohn’s bedside and commuting ectoplasmically to his disbarment proceedings in Yonkers is the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Chalfant). While the prospect of Cohn’s slow, painful death gives her enormous pleasure, a bond of sorts forms even between these two — culminating in Ethel’s coaching of Louis as he reluctantly mutters the Jewish prayer for the dead over the disgraced, expired lawyer.
Along the way is some devastatingly pointed hilarity in the face of disease and betrayal, much of it at the expense of the Mormons, including a couple of priceless scenes involving a diorama at the Visitor’s Center depicting the Mormon hegira to Utah, and the depiction of heaven as a place of beauty much like San Francisco.
The most poignant connection is made in heaven between Harper and Prior, in a brief, sad conversation about the agony of loss that endows them with unexpected strength: Prior rejects both Louis and his heavenly mandate to spread the message of “migratory cessation” to the world; while Harper, no longer in Joe’s thrall, finally sets out on her own.
“I want more life,” Prior declares before a gathering of angels. “I can’t help myself, I do.” That message — of grabbing life in the face of sickness, desertion, even death — courses through “Angels in America” and gives the play its powerful grounding. In an epilogue four years after the action has ended and set at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, Prior tells the audience that he’s lived with AIDS now for five years.
“We’re not going away,” he announces. “We won’t die slow, secret deaths anymore.” Echoing his rejection of the angels, Prior again declares, “More life!” That conclusion is indisputably tamer than the crashing finale of “Millennium Approaches.” But it’s also the inevitable coda to everything that has gone beforeand it tears right into the heart, for perhaps Kushner’s most stunning accomplishment with “Angels in America” is an unashamed refusal to poison his anger with cynicism.
With a cast that has grown fiercer and more confident in their roles, Wolfe again delivers a sprawling, complex work with incomparable elegance and clarity. Spinella, Mantello, Grant, McLaughlin, Chalfant and the mesmerizing Leibman have lost none of the fervor with which they attack their roles. But special mention should be made of Harden’s now utterly haunting portrayal of Harper, and of Wright’s total inhabitation of Belize’s skin, both performances that are greatly improved.
Robin Wagner’s settings are less abstract and more humorous than those for “Millennium,” and Jules Fisher’s lighting and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes again add immeasurably to the atmosphere. The stagecraft has no equal on Broadway.
But of course, neither does the play. “Angels in America” is a monumental achievement, the work of a defiantly theatrical imagination that has no parallel on television or in the movies. It ennobles Broadway as no other work in recent memory has.