As career-making plays go, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is perhaps our theatrical era’s very definition of a tough act to follow. Not unsurprisingly, Kushner has spent the years since evading that inevitable music-facing moment, crafting several classic adaptations and expanding dropped “Angels” sequences into a freestanding evening (“Slavs!”). “Hydriotaphia” is thus a cause for considerable excitement: It’s a wholly original Kushner premiere, at last. It’s also — here comes the qualifier — a “trunk” play, first written in 1987 (after “A Bright Room Called Day,” before “Angels”), never staged before this newly retooled text’s Berkeley Rep-Alley Theater co-production.
The bad news: This is no “Angels.” The good news: Due to its just-semi-“new” status and medium-national-visibility bow, one can comfortably relax any such expectations. The better news: Not quite a major work, but far from a minor one, “Hydriotaphia” is unfocused and attenuated at times, but nonetheless shows off its author’s dazzling intellect, wit and ambition to richly enjoyable effect.
At center stage here — and stuck there virtually all night — is real-life historical figure Sir Thomas Browne (Jonathan Hadary), once famed for his achievements as scientist, doctor, scholar and author. Now he lays on his 1667 Norfolk deathbed, attended by various concerned relatives, servants and professionals. What they seem mostly “concerned” with, however, is that the doc die (quickly, if possible), leaving each the bulk of his considerable wealth. Nearly everyone has a forged will to “discover” should the real one prove displeasing.
Sir Thomas himself is the only party eager to delay the Grim Reaper’s visit. Though publicly esteemed, privately he knows all too well what a life of sin, guilt, arrogance and cruelty hath wrought — he rests bloated with corruption and (literal) constipation, a human volcano ready to blow. What he fears is possible afterlife retribution.
Adding little comfort are appearances by his pristine, warbling Soul (Anika Noni Rose), who can wait no longer for her release to a better place; and cadaverous, platform-shoed Death (Paul Hope), forever distracted from his Browne-claiming mission.
The assembled mortals can see neither specter (at least at first), but then they’ve got melodramas of their own to fuss over. Wife Dame Dorothy (Shelley Williams) has long endured Sir T.’s callous treatment. Now she fancies cleaning the slate by returning his ill-gotten riches to the poor and marrying her hunksome gravedigger lover (Hamish Linklater). But latter doesn’t smile on this romantic proto-Socialism — he wants the money, honey.
Other self-interested parties include a stuttering pastor (J.R. Horne), a pompous German physician (Charles Dean), an aristocratic former mistress (Wilma Bonet) and Browne’s disguised, long-lost sister (Sharon Lockwood), who has spent her missing years as part of a terrorist warrior-nun band. Text’s least cogent role is played by a trio of witchy ranters (Delia MacDougall, Moya Furlow, Louise Chegwidden) who rep pre-Christian pagan mysticality.
Subtitled “An Epic Farce About Death and Primitive Capital in Five Scenes,” the play flourishes Kushner’s trademark ability to mix up wildly diverse tonalities and ideas — bawdy humor, theological and class warfare debate, fourth-wall-breaking, dizzying monologues, fantasy and domestic intrigue all whirl like a juggler’s pins.
Yet “Hydriotaphia” is “epic” only in the sense of length and thematic potpourri — its primarily farcical thrust leaves no room for “Angels’ ” character compassion or sweeping impact. This is essentially a thick-cut divertissement: a huge dessert, but a dessert nonetheless. Never dull, the work doesn’t really accumulate greater weight as it goes along, ultimately making its 3 1/2-hour length questionable. (Several exhausted opening-nighters left at the second intermission.)
Certainly a better production couldn’t be asked for than director Ethan McSweeny’s. (Michael Wilson, who helmed it at the Alley earlier this year, is given supervisory credit.) He does a brilliant job negotiating so many complex textual demands, and heroically creates a sense of constant activity that nearly hides the work’s one-set, sickbed-focused physical stasis. The cast (culled mostly from Berkeley Rep and Houston’s Alley Theater familiars) is excellent, topped by Hadary’s conniving yet pitiable Browne. Particularly hilarious support turns are contributed by Dean, Rod Gnapp’s Figaro-like manservant, and Sloane Shelton as a doddering nanny whose mush-mouthed speech sounds disturbingly like the late Edith Massey’s.
Amid a first-rate tech package, production gets a much-needed visual boost from Jeff Cowie’s bedroom chamber set, which is at once opulent and decrepit in its dank fine-detailing.