The National Theater production of Tony Kushner’s phenomenal 1993 epic work doesn’t feel like a historical artifact that won the Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, an Olivier Award, an Emmy, and the National Medal of Arts for its author. In fact, experiencing this revival of the 25-year-old play feels more like picking up a scorching hot ember from a fire that won’t burn out. The scribe’s thoughts about religion, politics, sex, morality, mortality, civic corruption and environmental calamity – as viewed through the prism of the 1980s AIDS crisis – seem every bit as prescient as they did when all our friends were dying.
Helmer Marianne Elliott’s production for the National approaches Kushner’s overflowing dramatic riches by balancing the realistic style of the early domestic scenes with the fantastic surrealism of the later dream sequences. Ian MacNeil’s turntable set of little boxes outline in neon (Paule Constable did the lighting) seems too confining for such a sweeping and timeless work – and what on earth is that metallic spaceship-thingy hovering over everyone’s heads?
But down below, where reality is more grounded, people are living lives that are about to change dramatically. The notorious cutthroat lawyer, Roy M. Cohn (a sensational Nathan Lane), is in his Manhattan office, mishandling an outraged client on the phone while making nice to his visitor, Joseph Pitt (Lee Pace), a devout Mormon and the chief clerk to a Federal court justice. Cohn is showing off for Joe, who he’s recruiting (as an accommodating friend at court) for a government job (“Associate Assistant Something Big. Internal Affairs, heart of the woods, something nice with clout”) in Washington. Cohn is at the peak of his dark strength and Lane revels in the power broker’s nasty, biting humor. (Lane is a genius on the phone: think “The Front Page”) “Listen, Ailene,” he barks into the phone, “You think I’m the only goddamn lawyer in history ever missed a court date?!” Like other egomaniacs we might name, Cohn honestly believes that his clients are indebted to him, and Lane seizes on the madness in his manic energy.
Home alone, Joe’s sensitive wife, Harper (Denise Gough, a study of incipient insanity), reflects on her intimations of the apocalypse. “People who are lonely, people who are left alone, sit talking nonsense to the air, imagining beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart.” No wonder Joe goes out for long walks at night, attracting the attention of young men who sense in him a kindred spirit.
In introducing his substantial cast of characters, Kushner humanizes the tragedy of their lot with flashes of spiky New York (i.e., gay) humor. Louis Ironson (James McArdle, throwing himself into a beast of a role), who has just learned that his lover, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield, giving the performance of his career – greater and more consequential than Spider-Man) has been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. Morose at the best of times, Louis wallows in Jewish guilt, not only for neglecting his late grandmother (“I abandoned her,” he confesses to a disinterested Rabbi), but also for the anticipated betrayal of his sick lover.
Guilt before the fact might not count in most religions, but Louis is already pulling away from Prior (“Maybe vomit and sores and disease really frighten him. “Maybe he isn’t so good with death,” he confesses to the same unimpressed Rabbi, suffering in advance for that unforgiveable sin. Which puts him in the proper mood of guilt and self-loathing to seduce Joe Pitt when he finds that dumb palooka in the men’s room of Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals where they both work.
More characters, living (Roy Cohn’s nurse, Belize, played with sass by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and dead (Ethel Rosenberg, in a spooky performance from Susan Brown), enter the story as Cohn’s illness worsens and Prior’s hallucinations intensify. But for now, we’re entangled in Kushner’s expanding themes, amazingly prescient for their own time and still of critical importance to ours.
There’s a tug of war going on for the soul of the country. Harper’s vision of Armageddon (“The world’s coming to an end”) flies in the face of Joe’s optimistic belief in Reaganomics, which in turn challenges Louis’s contempt for “heartless macho asshole lawyers” and defies Roy Cohn’s cynical faith in the motivational power of greed to confer immortality. Extrapolating from the poisoned fruits of Kushner’s historical plague, substitute Biblically scaled plagues of our own times: an autocratic president at home who admires brutal dictators abroad, an epidemic of school massacres, growing threats of nuclear war, unprecedented fires and floods, and the incipient death of the planet from global warming.
Garfield begins his riveting descent – ascent, really – into death and immortality when Prior discovers his first lesion. “The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death,” he calls it, with the sardonic humor of the soon-to-die. Tossing and turning on his deathbed, he’s haunted by ancestral specters exhorting their descendant to embrace his ambassadorial role in announcing the plague to the rest of the world. (A world, let it be remembered, denied warnings of the existence of AIDS by both the President of the United States and the mayor of the City of New York, where the plague was quietly, anonymously raging.)
Like Saint Peter during his dark night of the soul, Prior keeps resisting his monumental task until, at the end of “Millennium Approaches,” an Angel (Amanda Lawrence) crashes down from heaven and smashes through the walls of his bedroom. Praise be to costumer Nicky Gillibrand, this specter is no vision in pure white robes and bathed in a heavenly light, as she’s usually presented. Here, her giant wings are dirty and torn, their ragged feathers supported from dragging on the ground by six devilish-looking seraphs.
In “Perestroika,” a wasted Prior actually does physical battle with this terrifying creature, just as Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, did in the Bible story. It’s a harrowing scene, superbly lighted, set to ominous music, very physical, and faintly arousing.
The second half of “Angels” opens with sage words from the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik (the tireless Susan Brown). “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? … Will the Past release us? … Can we Change? … In Time?” Today, it’s hard to hear those words without weeping.
Kushner holds out the promise of redemption, once Prior accepts his role in the great scheme of things. But for now, those great things are a mess. Louis callously seduces Joe as Prior lays dying. Harper’s pristine Antarctica is grimy and gritty. And Roy Cohn, closeted to the very end, dies horribly of “liver cancer,” refusing with his last breath to give up any of the precious vials of AZT he’s been hoarding.
Not everyone in this epic drama is swept away in the social and political currents of the time. Belize, Roy Cohn’s sainted nurse, becomes Prior’s care giver. A Giver of Care. Not, for a change, a taker, but a Giver. Their gorgeously lighted bedside scene appears washed in gold.
At last, Kushner allows Prior, with his dying breath, to articulate the scribe’s message of hope. “Maybe I am a prophet. Not me, alone, all of us, the ones who’re dying now. Maybe the virus is the prophecy?” Perhaps it was, you can’t help answering, silently. But if so, why are we still marching in the streets?