Andrew Garfield sits in the break room of a Brooklyn rehearsal complex extolling the virtues of a quilt.

“That quilt is maybe my favorite piece of art,” he says of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the massive, still-growing piece of folk art that commemorates people who have died of AIDS-related causes. “It’s got everything in it that makes art profound. It’s about the meaning of life; it’s about our interconnectedness; it’s about beauty; it’s about honoring the sacredness of life. It’s so much, that quilt.”

He pauses at the sound of voices carrying easily into a room that has no ceiling, and listens for a bit. “That’s ‘Roy Cohn’s Butt Boy’ next door,” he says at last.

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Robbie Fimmano for Variety

He’s talking about a scene from “Angels in America,” the revolutionary theatrical epic that is the reason he’s been thinking about the quilt, and why he’s spending his days rehearsing at a performance space on the waterfront in Brooklyn. Previewing this month at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre ahead of its March 25 opening, Garfield will reprise the lead role he played last summer in London’s new National Theatre production.

The latest revival of Tony Kushner’s more than quarter-century-old award-winning two-part play about the AIDS crisis, “Angels” stands as one of the most hotly anticipated titles of Broadway’s spring season. The show also marks the New York return of Marianne Elliott, the British director behind “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” the National Theatre productions that went on to win Tonys and become two of the rare non-musicals to tour internationally.

“Angels” also brings Garfield back to the New York stage, where his last outing, the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman,” earned him a Tony nomination. The actor plays Prior, the gay man around whom the central figures of “Angels” revolve as he confronts life with AIDS and angelic visitations. Nathan Lane, one of the only Broadway-born names to reliably boost box office sales, plays Cohn, the vicious, powerful, closeted attorney who represented Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings.

Despite a story rooted in the specifics of the AIDS epidemic in New York in the mid-1980s, the vast, rigorous scope of “Angels in America” touches on issues that lend it topical resonance. There’s immigration; there’s climate change; and in the real-life story of Cohn, many have traced the rise of the values that seem to dominate American politics in the Trump era.

“I think my work is always at its best during Republican administrations,” Kushner notes ruefully. “It’s always the most useful thing for me. Of course, I would happily trade not having that feeling for another eight years of Barack Obama.”

Even with all the buzz, along with the imprimatur of the 1993 Pulitzer and back-to-back Tony Awards for best play — one for each part ­— in 1993 and 1994, this “Angels” is still a big risk.

At 7½ hours, the production is a heavy load for actors, producers and audiences alike. With a run limited to 18 weeks, due in part to the availability of its starry cast, the show’s backers, led by the National Theatre’s NT America and Jordan Roth, the president of Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters, have a relatively short time to make a profit on the equivalent of two big-budget plays with a combined price tag of $7 million to $8 million. Meanwhile, theatergoers, who can buy tickets to both parts only, face what could seem a daunting marathon of heady talk and intellectual sweep.

Nor does it help that “Angels” has landed smack in the middle of a crowded Broadway lineup that features strong competition in the epic play category from the two-part “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and Eugene O’Neill’s four-hour “The Iceman Cometh,” a new production starring Denzel Washington.

Whether it makes money or not, “Angels in America” nonetheless marks a homecoming of sorts for key players like London’s National Theatre and Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters, producers of both the original Broadway staging and the new one.

New to the piece is Elliott, tackling a play that was in many respects the “Hamilton” of its time. “In lots of ways, I’m not really the best choice to direct this piece,” she says. “I’m not American, I’m not Jewish, I’m not Mormon, I’m not gay, I’m not male. I’ve not been directly affected by AIDS. But it just felt like it was one of the most ambitious and achieved pieces of writing in the last century, and I felt like maybe I could be cheeky enough to try it.”

Hatching the plan at the National, the company that had played a significant role in the birth of “Angels,” Elliott and designer Ian MacNeil devised a massive production that aims to match the mythic sweep and shifts of the script. Garfield and Lane were first-choice castings for both Elliott and Kushner, and the involvement of each actor helped the National’s production, which ran April through August of 2017, become a smash that sold out in a day — faster than any other show in the theater’s history, according to NT America’s Tim Levy.

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Robbie Fimmano for Variety

Running as Britain grappled with Brexit and America got its first taste of life under Trump, the Reagan-era story of “Angels” took on fresh relevance — and drew a younger-skewing crowd that surprised those involved. “The percentage of first-time buyers and the younger demographic, particularly in the 20- to 30-year-old range, was extremely striking,” Levy says.

Kushner was astounded. “I kind of wasn’t prepared for how of the moment it felt,” he recalls.

The production was the latest return to the spotlight for “Angels,” after notable revivals that included the 2003 HBO adaptation directed by Mike Nichols and the 2010 Off Broadway staging that starred Zachary Quinto.

“The play has seemed to work for a long time, but every time it came back I would think, Oh, is this when we say, ‘OK, this play had its time, but sadly it’s a thing of the past,’” Kushner says. “But back when I was writing the play in the late 1980s, I felt very strongly that Reaganism was not just another chapter in the same old conservativism. It was something new and very bad, and we were launching onto a really terrifying road, politically. There’s an absolute direct line from that to what’s going on today.”

The success of “Angels in America” at the National stirred talk of a transfer, but much of Broadway balked at the commercial challenges of bringing over the technically complex behemoth for a limited run. Spurred by the production’s timeliness and the title’s place in his company’s history, Jujamcyn’s Roth pacted with the National to bring over the show and run it at a theater owned by Broadway’s Nederlander Organization, also on board as a producer.

“I think in moments of great peril, we look for our messengers — our angels — and that’s what the play is about,” Roth says.

The National Theatre’s productions of the two plays in the early 1990s — with a cast that included young actors Daniel Craig, Jason Isaacs and Stephen Dillane — helped launch “Angels in America” into the cultural zeitgeist, earning a rave from Frank Rich, then the powerful theater critic at The New York Times. In New York, upstart theater owner Jujamcyn fought hard to produce and present the original Broadway staging that would help put the company on the map, and introduce the industry to a cast that included Jeffrey Wright, Marcia Gay Harden and Tony-winning actor and director Joe Mantello.

The 3½-hour play “Millennium Approaches,” which makes up the initial part of “Angels in America,” premiered in 1991 as the first Bush administration wound to a close. Kushner is a writer who takes his time, and the further development of “Millennium” and “Perestroika,” the full-length play that completes the duology, became a years-long process as epic as “Angels” itself, encompassing delays, changes in directors and even a standoff between two California theaters over where “Millennium” would eventually premiere.

“I think my work is always at its best during Republican administrations. I would happily trade not having that feeling for another eight years of Obama.”
Tony Kushner

The behind-the-scenes story begins around the time “Angels in America” is set, 1985-86, when a small but attention-getting San Francisco company, the Eureka
Theater, with up-and-coming dramaturg Oskar Eustis (now the influential artistic director of the Public Theater), commissioned Kushner, recently out of graduate school at New York University, to write a play. Kushner had a title — “Angels in America” — and some initial ideas: about the AIDS crisis then ravaging the artistic communities of New York and San Francisco, about the uniquely American angels of Mormonism and about a gay man afflicted with AIDS who is visited in his sickbed by a divine, winged being.

As detailed in the just-published oral history “The World Only Spins Forward,” the play, an unfinished early draft of which came in at five hours, missed its scheduled first production at the Eureka, migrated with Eustis to L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum and debuted in 1991 at the Eureka after the theater invoked its legal right to the premiere production.

In 1992 the National produced the first part to great success, and then in 1993 it revived that production, directed by Declan Donnellan, and ran it in repertory with “Perestroika.” The second part had gotten its official premiere in a separate 1992 staging at the Taper, co-directed by Eustis and former Eureka artistic director Tony Taccone (now the leader of Berkeley Rep). By the time Broadway came calling, the bumpy, lengthy development process had afforded plenty of time for the play — an all-encompassing, political, fantastical yarn in an era of small-scale realism, and a then-rare work that put the gay experience at its center — to build major buzz.

“Certainly for those in the know, it was probably the most anticipated event since ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’” notes theater historian and NYU professor Laurence F. Maslon, referring to the National’s must-see Dickens adaptation from the early 1980s. “‘Angels in America’ had been around. It had been in the ether. It became the cocktail show, which we didn’t have again until ‘Hamilton.’”

Among those to prick up their ears were the leaders of Jujamcyn. “There was a feeling that it was monumental,” says Rocco Landesman, then the newly appointed president of Jujamcyn (and later the head of the National Endowment for the Arts). “This was going to change the theater.”

Jujamcyn battled other New York interests, including the powerful Shubert Organization, for the right to produce the Broadway incarnation. Landesman and company wooed creatives in part by expressing interest in Kushner’s overall career rather than just this one play, and pointing to Jujamcyn’s ongoing commitment to the work of August Wilson, a titan of drama whose plays rarely made money on Broadway.

After some critics noted the Taper production of “Angels” didn’t live up to the writing, Jujamcyn tapped director George C. Wolfe through another producer aboard the show, Margo Lion (“Hairspray”). (Wolfe had worked previously on “Jelly’s Last Jam,” which he also wrote.)

Andrew Garfield and Tony Kushner share a laugh at a rehearsal for “Angels in America” at GK Arts Center in Brooklyn.
Tori Young

He then assembled the cast, including Wright, Harden, Mantello and Stephen Spinella, an NYU classmate of Kushner’s who had been with the show since its first readings — as Prior. (Spinella starred in both parts and won a Tony for each.)

“Millennium Approaches” opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 13, 1993, won the Pulitzer soon thereafter and scored four Tony Awards weeks later. “Perestroika” opened Nov. 23, 1993, and won three more Tonys. “Angels in America” had become the theater event of two seasons.

Despite the status as a must-see, the scope, length and production demands of the epic — including the temporary closing of “Millennium” before reopening and running in rep with “Perestroika” — meant the show barely broke even by the time it closed on Dec. 4, 1994.

But like the angel that crashes through the ceiling at the climax of “Millennium Approaches,” “Angels in America” had exploded onto the scene, announcing a major playwright and making the case that Broadway — then struggling to fill theaters in a Times Square that was more “The Deuce” than Disney — could have a hit with a serious, challenging non-musical. “It became a classic overnight,” Maslon says. “There’s something Shakespearean in ‘Angels in America.’ Yes, it’s a gay play, but in the way that ‘Hamlet’ is a play about princes. It embraces and transcends it at once.”

One of the things that brought Garfield back to the grueling role of Prior is what the 1980s-set play has to say about the world today.

“Every week there’s going to be people coming into the theater with new rage,” the actor says. “There’s no humanity in politics right now, especially on the right. It’s evident we’re in trouble. There need to be new laws. There needs to be a new regime created. There’s this extremism on all sides right now, and I think what Tony gives us at the end of this play is a balanced vision of a future that’s led by deep listening, compassion, community, empathy and awareness of our interconnectedness. And I guess, ultimately, love.”

Garfield had never seen a production of “Angels” onstage, but the HBO version was a major touchstone for him in drama school. When Kushner emailed him about the new production, he agreed immediately.

Lane also jumped at the offer. Although widely known as a comic actor, he’s more recently leaned toward serious stage roles, most notably as the lead in the Goodman Theater’s 2012 Chicago production of “The Iceman Cometh.” He was familiar with “Angels” and the role of Roy Cohn, and lived in New York during the AIDS crisis. (“I went to the St. Marks Baths!” he says of a sauna mentioned in the play.)

“Because of the fact that people are aware that Roy was Trump’s lawyer and mentor, now you hear some of the things he’s saying and they sound very familiar,” notes Lane, who worked to find the seductive charm in a man who was also, the actor says, “a shit and a vile human being. Roy is a cautionary tale.”

Bringing the show back to New York involved reconvening the actors — including London stage favorites Denise Gough and James McArdle, plus new cast member Lee Pace (“Halt and Catch Fire”) — for a monthlong rehearsal process that sprawled across multiple studios simultaneously. All that comes even before the start of performances, when the whole play can be seen on two separate days or marathoned over a single Wednesday or Saturday.

Ellen McLaughlin and Stephen Spinella starred in the first Broadway production.
Joan Marcus/Photofest

“There’s something about the exhaustion,” Garfield says. “It’s like doing a sweat lodge. Because it’s 7½ hours, you never have a great show. We all come off at the end of a two-show day and go, ‘It was fucking great, and it was fucking awful.’ But as soon as I start to feel sorry for myself that I’ve been given this duty of attempting to make sense of this play and give it to people, I immediately get knocked sideways. I go, ‘Shut the fuck up. This is such a privilege to honor the souls that didn’t make it through and to honor the souls that did.’”

Garfield’s urge to memorialize and celebrate those affected by the AIDS epidemic seems to go hand in hand with what, for Kushner, stands out about the actor’s take on his character. “He’s a person with a great spiritual dimension,” the playwright says. “Maybe more than any other Prior I’ve worked with, Andrew is very attracted to that side of the character.”

Acknowledges Garfield: “I’m interested in the timeless. I think without a spiritual dimension, life becomes meaningless — and I use ‘spiritual’ in a very general sense. I think it’s a spiritual practice to believe humans are more decent than they are not. That feels like it’s very faith-based. Hope is a spiritual exercise.”

So is theater, notes Kushner: “That’s the fun — that you see the rope that’s holding up the angel, but if you’re really moved, part of you believes this sick man’s bedroom has just been invaded by a flying being with wings.”

Meanwhile, as Garfield revisits themes of sickness and change and progress in the wide-ranging conversation in Brooklyn, it’s easy at every turn to hear echoes of the play he’s rehearsing.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “It’s about everything.”

Watch a video from the interview: