Review: ‘Angels in America’

Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning two-part, six-hour epic is a play unlike any other, a show that shoots boldly back and forth between fantasy and reality and encompasses themes including AIDS, Reagan-era politics, angels, homophobia, ghosts, identity crises and the nature of loyalty. It took guts for the 99-seat Noho Arts Center to attempt such a huge enterprise.

Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-part, six-hour epic is a play unlike any other, a show that shoots boldly back and forth between fantasy and reality and encompasses themes including AIDS, Reagan-era politics, angels, homophobia, ghosts, identity crises and the nature of loyalty. It took guts for the 99-seat Noho Arts Center to attempt such a huge enterprise. An ambitious but uneven production, “Angels” comes across as a series of passionate scenes that don’t snap firmly into place. For each moment that doesn’t realize its potential, however, there are numerous others that retain Kushner’s ruthless honesty.

Actors have their hands full interpreting this text, which requires them to be sensitive and naturalistic one minute, then deliver stormy, extravagantly theatrical speeches the next. Some of the performers, under Karesa McElheny’s direction, walk the tightrope more effectively than others, notably David H. Ferguson as Prior, a 30-year-old who learns he has AIDS, then is doubly devastated by the defection of his unreliable lover, Louis (Jamie Rogers). Ferguson alternates despair with a furious determination to survive, and he balances painful humor, pathos and bitterness.

Jim Lunsford as Joe, a conservative Republican and dedicated Mormon battling his gay impulses, also gets under the skin of the role. He makes us feel the agony of his efforts to conform as he listens to his unsatisfied wife, Harper (Thia Stephan), telling him how much she hates their sex life, or copes with the decision of whether to sleep with Louis.

The scene when he succumbs to Louis’ seductive pressure is beautifully acted, and Rogers is particularly persuasive when he reassures the quaking Joe, “You’re scared. So am I. Everybody is in the land of the free.”

Rogers is frequently tentative in “Millennium Approaches,” with a tendency to swallow words. Later on, in “Perestroika,” when his Louis rejects Joe and attempts a reconciliation with Prior, the portrayal takes hold and attains power.

Stephan has a tougher time with the Harper part. She’s pill-popping and delusional, yet Stephan’s aura of competence and normalcy contradict our estimate of her as a mentally disturbed individual. It’s never clear exactly why she loves her husband so much or why she would say, “I miss his penis” so vehemently, in view of the sexual gulf between them. Her walkout at the end also lacks conviction. Her best scenes are the gentler ones with Prior and Belize (Dejon Mayes).

Belize, as intelligently interpreted by Mayes, is both flamboyant and dignified, a nurse whose hatred of cruelty is tempered by his belief in forgiveness. This forgiveness is a monumental challenge in treating racist Roy Cohn (Jeffrey Cabot Myers), the abusive, power-mad right-wing attorney with AIDS.

Myers achieves sufficient hostility to fuel his assaultive arias, especially in clashes with the vengeful ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (a spine-chilling Amanda Karr), but he’s not monstrous enough. His line readings convey information without the gut-deep vileness and ugliness of spirit the part requires. There’s something clean-cut about his persona that wars with the role.

In “Perestroika,” the acting loses subtlety, often turning operatic and overwrought, and we become increasingly conscious of tone shifts and episodic transitions. This heightens awareness of the florid language, emphasizing its purple aspects.

What remains seamless are production values, a major feat considering the small quarters. Luke Moyer’s lighting is magical, especially in such sequences as Prior climbing steps to heaven.

Sets by Craig Siebels and Lacey Lee Anzelc consist of a two-story stage, partitioned into four sections, each with an individual set of drapes that open or close as the sequences require. This approach enables the multiple scene changes to move rapidly, without disrupting continuity.

Most haunting of all is Mike Roy’s flying design, spotlighting the angel (Harmony Goodman), alternately white and black visions at different times dangling in the air as she taunts, teases and threatens the terrified Prior.

Angels in America

Noho Arts Center; 99 seats; $50 top

Production

An Open at the Top Prods. and Lilybeau Prods. presentation of two plays, "Part 1: Millennium Approaches" and "Part 2: Perestroika," by Tony Kushner. Directed by Karesa McElheny. Sets, Craig Siebels, Lacey Lee Anzelc; lighting, Luke Moyer; sound, Jonathan Zenz; costumes, Zale Morris; flying design, Mike Roy; production stage manager, Jim Barkley. Opened Feb. 25, 2005; reviewed March 6. Running time: 6 HOURS.

Cast

Roy Cohn - Jeffrey Cabot Myers Joe Pitt - Jim Lunsford Harper Pitt - Thia Stephan Belize - Dejon Mayes Louis Ironson - Jamie Rogers Prior Walter - David H. Ferguson Hannah Pitt - Amanda Karr The Angel - Harmony Goodman
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