Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was the best American play of the 1990s — both Part One: Millennium Approaches, and Part Two: Perestroika. That isn’t to declare Angels a perfect play, but as Robert Browning claimed, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Then, as now — with director Marianne Elliott bringing her revival from London’s National Theatre to Broadway nearly intact, with Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy M. Cohn — the playwright achieves a heavenly piece. Cohn, in particular, is part that Lane was born to play.
Kushner’s subtitle for Angels in America is “a gay fantasia on national themes.” He uses it to give himself license to dart from the humorous realism of three interlocking tales into many fantasies. More on those in a moment.
The tales follow Prior Walter and his lover, Louis Ironson, who are first seen together in October 1985 as Prior reveals a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion that he’s discovered. Such a discovery was regarded then for what it was: an incontrovertible death sentence. Louis leaves him.
Meantime, legendary lawyer Roy Cohn is spotted working his office phones while an intern, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace), hopes to get a word in. When they finally talk, Cohn confides that he’s sending Joe to Washington, D.C. — a move Joe isn’t prepared to make. He worries how it will affect his marriage to the mentally troubled Harper (Denise Gough).
After Louis leaves Prior, and Joe, a guilt-ridden Mormon, embraces his homosexual desires and moves in with Louis, the liaison to the third story is Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a gay-as-a-pink-hat nurse who cares for Cohn in the hospital (he claims to have liver cancer but he know he has AIDS). Belize is also Prior’s good friend.
It is interesting to me that Kushner limits the fantasias of his characters to those involving Prior, Harper and Cohn. They include Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz (Susan Brown); Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt (Brown), and a revenge-seeking Ethel Rosenberg (Brown). The most amusing are the visits Prior receives from two of his ancestors, called Prior 1 (Pace, in medieval garb) and Prior 2 (Lane, mincing in 18th-century drag). The most histrionic is the soiled Angel (Amanda Lawrence), who arrives after much dramatic proclamation in the best of Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes. The most brilliant are Rosenberg’s drop-bys.
Not every Kushner digression has the impact of these. When Harper, not yet recovered from a miscarriage, shows up in snowy Antarctica, it’s questionable what the playwright gains. Towards the end of the play, when Prior gets to heaven to mingle with angels who seem unsettled about their duties, it’s not the meaningful sequence Kushner intends it to be.
Indeed, as someone who would happily watch Angels in America often, I feel these sections could be excised easily. I’ve also always assumed that everything Kushner wrote are in the two plays, the play. Now it occurs to me that there may be all sorts of fantasies lying in the playwright’s desk drawers, after having been cut by previous eminent directors of the play, such as Oskar Eustis, Declan Donnellan, Michael Mayer and George C. Wolfe. (Mike Nichols’ compact 2003 HBO miniseries captures the play better than any stage version I’ve seen.)
Twenty-five years after Angels in America premiered, there are two likely audiences for a play that in the ’90s was shockingly of-the-minute. It can remind older audience members of what they lived through then. And it can invite more contemporary audiences to make a vivid march back into recent history.
There are also two ways in which Angels in America is bluntly timely in current America. We know, for example, that young Donald Trump was fiercely mentored by Cohn, who slammed the concept of loyalty into his orange meringue-topped head. Kushner has Cohn call for loyalty twice; it rings loud bells both times. The catch, for Cohn, was that loyalty was a two-direction thoroughfare, whereas for Trump it remains only one.
The other flashing contemporary light occurs at the end. When audience first encountered Angels in America, AIDS sufferers imagined little future for themselves. AZT was available, but no one knew that long-term prospects would be good or that improved medicines were on the horizon. So when Prior shows up at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, it’s almost as surprising as Mimi’s springing to life at the end of Jonathan Larsen’s Rent. What transpires in Kushner’s 1980s seems a fair enough peer into the future.
Praising the Angels in America performances requires starting at the top. Garfield begins playing with a sophisticated swish that deepens as his hysteria builds and, after some time, eases into welcome compatibility. (Gillibrand helps with the costumes.) Watching McArdle and Garfield in their many exquisitely written confrontations — capturing the essence of many gay relationships — is properly painful.
Maybe the first thing to say of Lane is he sure knows how to handle a phone conversation. He was hilarious on the horn at the beginning of Terence McNally’s It’s Only a Play three Broadway seasons ago, and here he is once more haranguing the wire as he launches into a performance taking from the height of Cohn’s sinister powers to losing them entirely. This is one of Lane’s greatest stage performances ever.
Every one of Elliott’s cast is up to the task — Gough, Pace, Brown, Stewart-Jarrett — and although it sometimes seems the director has some very ill people shouting more than they should be able, they all succeed greatly in a tech-slick production designed by Ian MacNeil and lit by Paule Constable, with music by Adrian Sutton and movement by Steven Hoggett.
As noted above, the one-on-one confrontations that emerge throughout Angels in America contain some of Kushner’s most trenchant lines and most stinging observations. I’ll indulge myself here and admit that my favorite speech is Harper’s final declaration. She’s flying across America, looking down to see countless souls rising, joining together. Such stunning poetry. Actually, all of Angels in America is just that.