Broadway Review: ‘Angels in America’ With Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane

Tony Kushner’s epic drama about the age of AIDS in the 1980s returns with Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in lead roles, and fresh messages for our current end time.

Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Amanda Lawrence, James McArdle, Lee Pace, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Beth Malone, et al.

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?

Broadway Review: 'Angels in America' With Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane

ANGELS IN AMERICA: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Part 1 “Millennium Approaches”

Part 2 “Perestroika”

Neil Simon Theater; 1422 seats; $179 top

Production: A presentation by Tim Levy for NT America; Jordan Roth, Rufus Norris & Lisa Burger for the National Theater; Elliott & Harper Productions; Kash Bennett for NT Productions; Aged in Wood; the Baruch-Viertel-Rough-Frankel Group; Jane Bergere; Adam Blanshay Productions; Catwenjam Productions; Jean Doumanian; Gilad-Rogowsky; Gold-Ross Productions; the John Gore Organization; Grove Entertainment; Harris Rubin Productions; Hornosmoellenberg; Brian & Dayna Lee; Benjamin Lowy; Stephanie P. McClelland; David Mirvish; Mark Pigott; Jon B. Platt; E. Price-LD Ent.; Daryl Roth, Catherine Schreiber; Barbara Whitman; Jujamcyn Theaters; the Nederlander Organization; and the Shubert Organization of the National Theater production of a play in two parts and nine acts by Tony Kushner. Opened March 25, 2018; reviewed March 17. RUNNING TIME: “Millennium Approaches”: THREE HOURS, 35 MIN. “Perestroika”: THREE HOURS, 55 MIN.

Creative: Directed by Marianne Elliott. Sets, Ian MacNeil; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Paule Constable; puppetry direction & movement, Finn Caldwell; music, Adrian Sutton; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; movement, Steven Hoggett; hair, wigs, makeup, Rick Caroto; original movement, Roby Graham; puppet design, Finn Caldwell & Nick Barnes; illusions, Chris Fisher; production stage manager, Kristen Harris.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Susan Brown, Denise Gough, Amanda Lawrence, James McArdle, Lee Pace, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Beth Malone, et al.

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]


    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]


    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content