'Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia

Production scores its most resounding success in presenting us with two characters so irresistibly appealing that their unhappy romance is nothing less than a soul-crushing tragedy.

It’s been a lifetime — almost two decades — since “Angels in America” was first produced. Is it time for a revival? Sadly, yes, it’s high time we revisited the grave subjects Tony Kushner raised in his epic play about America in the age of AIDS. Although the kernel of this challenging work (told in two parts and running close to seven hours) is the very personal drama of a gay man who deserts his lover when the lover contracts AIDS, the political and social issues it takes on are monumental. And as Michael Greif’s production forcefully reminds us, those issues have yet to be resolved.

Before it can engage anyone in its sweeping arguments on the ethics and morals of an entire nation, any revival of “Angels” must first convince an audience to accept its gay love story on universal human terms. Although that may have been trickier in 1991 (when this daring play walked away with a Pulitzer and two Tony Awards) than it is today, with gays still denied their civil right to marry or serve in the military, it can’t be said that the show is dated because the cause has been won.

But accepting gay lovers is not the same as taking them into your heart, and this production scores its most resounding success in presenting us with two characters so irresistibly appealing that their unhappy romance is nothing less than a soul-crushing tragedy.

Christian Borle (“Legally Blonde,” “Spamalot”) is instantly believable and never less than heartbreaking as Prior Walter, whose sweet temper survives even the worst agonies of AIDS. If ever anyone deserved a visit from an angel, this man is it.

As the hard-hearted guy who dumps Prior when he’s diagnosed with the then-fatal disease, Louis Ironson (Zachary Quinto) has a hard time convincing even a good friend like Belize (Billy Porter, wonderful in every way) — let alone an audience that has taken Prior to its bosom — that he shouldn’t go straight to hell. Especially when he initiates a tactically brilliant seduction of Joe Pitt (Bill Heck), a newly married and very closeted Mormon who works in Roy Cohn’s law office.

Quinto (a star presence in “Heroes” and “Star Trek”) knows his craft well enough to take his time on rehabilitating Louis. It isn’t this intelligent and highly verbal character’s impassioned political arguments that do the trick; it’s the sensitive and savvy way Quinto works through Louis’ guilt to explore the depths of his conflicted feelings.

Frank Wood (“Side Man”) also takes the long way ’round in his portrayal of Roy Cohn, everybody’s favorite Prince of Darkness back in the Reagan years, who refuses to let it be known that he has AIDS — or to share his precious horde of AZT — and dies in agony of “liver cancer.”

Although it’s hard to wipe out memories of the absolute fury Ron Liebman brought to the role in the original production, Wood gives a toothsome perf of the foul-mouthed Washington lawyer who understands better than anyone else in the play that “homos have no power” in the land of the free and the brave. Even more than Prior’s ordeal, Cohn’s harrowing death scene in “Perestroika” also strongly conveys the impact of public fears about AIDS in the ’80s, which added yet another terrible dimension to the sufferings of its victims.

Working on Mark Wendland’s busy but functional set (basically, two revolving set pieces with exposed backsides), Greif manages the staging of the play’s complicated construction as fluidly as he can. But the direction stumbles where the play has always faltered, in the surreal scenes that are supposed to put us in touch with the metaphysical elements of Kushner’s vision.

Robin Bartlett’s serene grasp of the technical demands thrown at her bolsters her frightening yet quietly moving portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg, who rises from the grave to keep the deathwatch at Roy Cohn’s bedside. But Harper Pitt (Zoe Kazan), Joe Pitt’s pill-popping Mormon wife, has always been a trial, and her hallucinating trip to Antarctica is hardly redeemed by Kazan’s stone-cold perf.

As for the Angel (more human than she needs to be, in Robin Weigert’s perf), she doesn’t come a minute too soon. And unhappily for this world of ours, she doesn’t stick around long enough.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 1: Millennium Approaches Part 2: Perestroika

Peter Norton Space; 160 seats; $85 top

Production

A Signature Theater Company presentation of a two-part play performed in four acts by Tony Kushner. Directed by Michael Greif.

Creative

Sets, Mark Wendland; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Ben Stanton, sound, Ken Travis; projections, Wendall K. Harrington, music, Michael Friedman and Chris Miller; hair and wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Monica A. Cuoco. Reviewed Oct. 24, 2010. Opened Oct. 28. Running time: Part 1: 3 HOURS; Part 2: 3 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Hannah Pitt - Robin Bartlett Prior Walter - Christian Borle Joe Pitt - Bill Heck Harper Pitt - Zoe Kazan Belize - Billy Porter Louis Ironson - Zachary Quinto The Angel - Robin Weigert Roy Cohn - Frank Wood

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