Amid much speculation about how it would perform at the box office here and elsewhere around the country, the first national touring company of Tony Kushner’s impressively written epic “Angels in America” has begun its journey in the intimate Royal George Theater with an advance ticket sale of almost $740,000.
While this $ 1.2 million road company, directed by Michael Mayer, has its flaws — primarily in some of its design aspects — the production still captures all that is moving and funny and, finally, unforgettable in Kushner’s drama of three sets of characters whose stories are ingeniously woven into a bold tapestry of an America that is, in the words of one character, “terminal and crazy.”
Technical difficulties and the addition of new scenic elements turned an originally scheduled four-day break into a two-week gap between the opening of the first half of Kushner’s work, “Millennium Approaches,” and “Perestroika,” the concluding and — in this production — the more effective part.
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In both “Millennium” and “Perestroika” Mayer has pared down the production values and put the emphasis squarely where it should be — on the words, the characters and the story. But in “Millennium” Mayer is somewhat less successful at making the basics work. On its opening night, none of the performances seemed in properly sharp focus, and the evening’s energy level was too low.
Two weeks later, however, the situation had markedly improved in “Perestroika”: The pacing was quicker and the characters more vividly realized. The exchanges bristled with an electric charge missing in the earlier half. More important, the breathtaking and fascinating shifts from comedy to grim drama in Kushner’s sweeping story were beautifully executed.
Kate Goehring is particularly good in “Perestroika” as Harper Pitt, the young Mormon wife driven to the brink of insanity by her husband Joe Pitt’s long-repressed homosexuality. In “Perestroika” Goehring brings out much more of Harper’s psychic pain than was evident in her overly sweet performance in “Millennium.”
In the commanding role of Roy Cohn, the famously ruthless gay attorney dying of AIDS, Jonathan Hadary also turns in a much more interesting performance in “Perestroika,” in which Cohn spends most of his time in a hospital bed slowly expiring in a fit of rage, than he does in “Millennium.” In the first part, the actor overplays Cohn’s flamboyance.
Barbara Robertson does a finely detailed job of crafting the various supporting roles she is called upon to perform throughout “Angels,” from the tough Mormon matriarch Hannah Pitt to the chilling ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Philip Earl Johnson is entirely believable as the young Mormon attorney Joe Pitt , terribly afraid to confront his true homosexual self, but ultimately unable to deny it.
Robert Sella brings an appealing warmth and less biting sarcasm to the central role of Prior Walter, a man with AIDS who’s fighting for life while trying to hold together his relationship with the politically charged Louis Ironson, smoothly underplayed here by Peter Birkenhead.
Reg Flowers also downplays the outrageous side in the character of Belize, Cohn’s forgiving nurse and Prior Walter’s welcome confidant. Carolyn Swift, however, is not as awesome as she needs to be in the role of the Angel, a difficult and important figure in Kushner’s play.
From a design standpoint, this touring production of “Angels” has its problems. The look of the Angel’s arrival at the conclusion of “Millennium” was reworked during previews. Though it should have a momentous feeling, the scene here verges instead on a bad “Saturday Night Live” parody, with huge chunks of falling plaster and overly loud wing-flapping noises heralding the Angel’s descent. And in “Perestroika,” set designer David Gallo has surrounded the playing area with a wall of the detritus of American civilization that is more an annoying distraction than anything else.
What should be a blood-curdling scene — when Cohn first learns from his doctor that he has AIDS — is somewhat less so in this production because of lighting designer Brian MacDevitt’s decision to bathe Cohn in white light, while his doctor is almost lost in shadows. The effect throws the scene badly off-balance.
Several of Michael Krass’ costume designs are less than ideal too, particularly his unheavenly and downright unappealing attire for the Angel. Krass’ outfits for Harper Pitt also never quite capture her crazed persona as we come to know it. On the plus side, Michael Ward’s original music adds a bold and memorable punctuation to many scenes.
While distracting at times, the design deficiencies are by no means fatal. The power of Kushner’s script still shines through in Mayer’s production. It remains to be seen how a drama as substantive and potent as “Angels in America” will do in the heart of America.