Review: An ‘Angels in America’ That Soars on the Breath of Life

Even on deathbeds or in mind-melting states of hallucination, everybody in “Angels” pulses with that animating spirit. And even more than when I saw this production at London’s National Theater last spring, the cast members here make you feel the full force of such vitality.

That’s what they all have in common, this strangely assembled, ineffably interconnected group that includes drag queens, wandering Mormons, assorted lawyers, a breast-beating Jewish intellectual and the real-life power-broker (and Donald J. Trump mentor) Roy Cohn.


Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, still raging from his hospital bed, in “Angels in America.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

It’s even true of the ghosts who show up to taunt and haunt. Only the angels of the title seem to be lacking in this insistent energy, and there’s a reason for that.

The inhabitants of “Angels” are as glowingly individual as illuminated fingerprints. I found it impossible not to identify or even fall a little in love with all of them, including Mr. Lane’s satanic Roy.

And when characters are this vividly drawn, spending hours in their company is no hardship. Watching both parts of “Angels” — “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” — on one Saturday, as I did, didn’t feel much different from falling into a fat novel by Dickens or Donna Tartt, or binge-watching a quality soap on Netflix.

At the dinner break, I almost resented having to leave the theater for two hours. The play’s second half still lacks the focus of its first part. Mr. Kushner takes it upon himself to elucidate mysteries he has set up earlier, and “Perestroika” has some of the water-treading frenzy of the last season of David Lynch’s original “Twin Peaks.” But the characters remain so palpably there, in the writing and the performance, that attention never flags.

Ms. Elliott — a two-time Tony winner for her productions of “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” — has always been at home with vast canvases. But on the National’s immense Lyttelton stage, her “Angels” could sometimes feel lost in space. And some of the British cast members were having trouble fitting into the American skins of their characters.

This “Angels” sits far more comfortably in its New York residence. And the method in Ian MacNeil’s shadow-shrouded stage design, with lighting by Paule Constable, is now gratifyingly apparent. The mid-1980s New York conjured here is a town of endless night.

Isolated spaces — apartments, offices, restaurants and hospital rooms — are defined by cool neon strips, with window-framed vistas as lonely as those of a Hopper painting. The real radiance comes from the people, and how they flicker, sputter and flame.

At their center is Prior Walter (a magnificent Mr. Garfield, last seen on Broadway in Mike Nichols’s staging of “Death of a Salesman”). Having just learned that he is HIV-positive when the play begins, Mr. Garfield’s Prior is a mix of mortal terror, a drag queen’s bravado and a profound consciousness that the world is now a different place for him. He embraces his disease by making a wild, grotesque joke of it, even when he’s in pain.

This approach is not appreciated by his boyfriend, Louis Ironson (a terrific James McArdle, who wears his character’s guilt like a scratchy straitjacket), a legal clerk prone to endless bloviation on morality and justice. Louis leaves Prior, drawing the first line in a pattern of abandonment that informs the entire play, and finally stretches all the way into the empyrean kingdom of an absent God.

Don’t be thrown by the God business or by the celestial messengers of the title who choose Prior (descended from a long line of Anglo-Saxon ancestors with the same name) to be their prophet on earth. It is all utterly of a piece with Mr. Kushner’s vision of a universe that seems to be coming apart on every level.

The sense of a world in which the center no longer holds feels freshly and frighteningly relevant to this fraught year of 2018. Such times, “Angels” makes clear, are crucibles in which moral and mortal worth are tested. God may no longer be around to judge those of bad faith, but Mr. Kushner definitely is.

More than any “Angels” I’ve encountered, Ms. Elliott’s version illuminates the symmetry amid the play’s diverse relationships. Louis’s cowardice (disguised as Nietzschean self-assertion) is mirrored by that of Joe Pitt (Lee Pace), a closeted Mormon lawyer with little patience for his Valium-popping, fantasist wife, Harper (Denise Gough, of “People, Places & Things”).


Denise Gough, left, as Harper Pitt, and Lee Pace as Joe Pitt in “Angels in America.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Gough provided a convincing portrait of a textbook depressive in London, which made sense but also felt monotonous. Her Harper now shimmers with wit and the promise of a buried resourcefulness. Harper’s spikiness is on a level with that of Mr. Garfield’s Prior, and when they meet “on the threshold of revelation” in shared hallucinations, they are a wonderfully matched set.

Mr. Lane’s Roy Cohn — whose own battle with AIDS is a vivid counterpoint to Prior’s — is fully on their level of intensity. Taking on a role memorably embodied by Ron Leibman and Al Pacino, among others, he provides a fresh-as-toxic-paint interpretation that embraces extremes — of viciousness and, more surprisingly tenderness — without stripping gears. He is a fully human monster, which is the scariest kind.

Mr. Pace, who is new to the cast, overemphasizes the heart of coldness in Joe, who leaves Harper after falling in lust with Louis. It’s a stark, glacial and intermittently arresting performance that could use some of the dangerous warmth that Russell Tovey brought to the London version.

The rest of the cast members, who play multiple roles, couldn’t be much better. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is dry, droll and very funny as a caustic gay nurse. And Amanda Lawrence is, among other things, a disheveled angel to remember. (Her much heralded arrival has never felt wittier or more thematically on point, thanks to Nicky Gillibrand’s bedraggled celestial costumes and the puppetry of Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes.)

Susan Brown is sensational as a rabbi, an ancient Soviet revolutionary and Joe’s staunch Mormon mother. She is also, indelibly, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed as a Communist spy in 1953, thanks in part to Cohn’s efforts.

Ethel returns from her grave to hold vigil at Roy’s deathbed, a task she relishes. Each is the bitterest enemy of the other. Yet a moment comes, as they are exchanging angry curses, when they erupt into shared raucous laughter, and it is a scarily knowing, energizing noise.

You’re reminded that, among many other things, “Angels in America” is a comedy, but in the biggest, most generous sense of the word. I mean as in the Human Comedy and the Divine Comedy, which in Mr. Kushner’s swirling, mixed-up universe are gloriously one and the same.

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Nonfiction: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Hotheaded Perfectionist

Not exactly the promise of a page-turner to come.

Still, he soldiers on. And so must I.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who turns 70 today, was born in London’s Westminster Hospital to a father who was a talented but unambitious composer who turned instead to the academic world, and a mother who poured her own dreams into Andrew and his younger brother.


From the beginning, Lloyd Webber showed a distinct musical talent. And he was an early fan of musical theater — seeing the London productions of “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story” while still a child, beginning to write school theatricals when he was 11 and finding that his satirical portraits of the teachers suddenly made him popular with his peers. “Boys were shouting ‘Lloydy, Lloydy!’” he recalls.

The turning point in his career came in 1965 when he met Tim Rice, whom his agent had recommended as a potential lyricist for a project the precocious 17-year-old was beginning to work on. The meeting seemed to go well: “Awe-struck might be a better way of describing my first encounter with Timothy Miles Bindon Rice,” Lloyd Webber says. The two later went on to write “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” parting ways around the time that “Cats” was coming together (as a lyricist, Rice was replaced by a long-dead T. S. Eliot).

One recurring theme of Lloyd Webber’s memoir is his increasingly fractious relationship with Rice. The two seem to have fallen out sometime around “Evita,” their collaboration apparently complicated by Rice’s affair with Elaine Paige, the leading lady in the original London production, and by tensions over which of the two men was getting more credit for their growing fame. A final break came when Rice was called in on “Cats” to help write the lyrics for what would eventually become “Memory,” but his work never made it into the final product. “We had a great 10 years,” Rice later told an interviewer. “Very few artistic partnerships last more than 10 years, and if they do they tend to go down the tubes.”

Lloyd Webber frequently drops hints that all was not well between the two — at one point quoting his father saying, “You won’t have a long-term partnership with Tim” — but he never states what exactly went wrong or demonstrates that he ever confronted Rice about what he apparently saw as his undermining and occasionally deceitful ways. The closest he comes is when he seems to suspect that Rice was trying to undercut the forthcoming production of “Phantom” by attempting to “hijack” its director, Hal Prince, for a show of his own.

The other main character in Lloyd Webber’s life, at least in the period covered in this book, is the singer Sarah Brightman, his second wife, with whom he had an affair while still married to his first wife (also named Sarah), and whom he later cast in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Even if you knew nothing of Lloyd Webber’s personal life, and that this union did not last, the author certainly foreshadows the fact that the marriage was doomed. While describing her otherworldly singing voice and delicate beauty, Lloyd Webber casually says that during their affair, Brightman was married to a man no one ever seems to have seen, and insinuates that she had a reputation for becoming romantically entangled with colleagues. Sure enough, when their split finally comes, Lloyd Webber mentions in passing that Brightman was apparently having an affair with a keyboard player in the “Phantom” orchestra. (Lloyd Webber seems to have found marital bliss with his third wife, Madeleine, to whom he has been married for 27 years.)

The one revelation in the book has nothing to do with Lloyd Webber’s music or his romantic affairs. It is the surprising assertion that in 1981, Milos Forman approached him about playing Mozart in his film version of “Amadeus.” Lloyd Webber was appalled, telling Forman that he was “a hopeless actor.” But the director was undeterred. “You are a hotheaded perfectionist who can be extremely obnoxious,” Lloyd Webber quotes him saying. “I want you to play yourself.” Lloyd Webber writes that Forman pursued him off and on for the next couple of years and that he managed to wriggle out of the director’s grasp only when he insisted (jokingly, he says) in a meeting with Forman and some of the producers that Mozart’s music be replaced by his own. Startlingly, the producers seemed willing to go along, until Forman stepped in and stated the obvious: “I think Andrew is saying he doesn’t want to play the role.” (The film, with Tom Hulce taking on the role of Mozart, went on to win eight Oscars.)

My suspicion is that Lloyd Webber might have had a similar conversation with his book editor, arguing that he really didn’t want to write a memoir. If so, readers may finish this book wishing the editor had agreed.

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Nonfiction: Why ‘Tomorrow Will Be Different’ for the Transgender Community

By the time she finds herself arguing before the Delaware legislature, though, both McBride the character and the book’s narrative voice have gained enough confidence to passionately convince their audiences of her lifelong cause. The debate scene comes alive through the specificity of McBride’s prose. She recalls how some Republican lawmakers at first cast trans people as restroom predators, before becoming “more muted” and “almost sheepish” in their opposition after her testimony, unable to fully vilify trans people after interacting with one. As McBride sits in tears on the Senate floor, State Senator Karen Peterson is the only one to comfort her — for Peterson, who is lesbian, recognizes “the indignity of having to plead for your most basic rights,” McBride writes. The scene’s pathos underlines the absurdity of having to debate anyone’s right to a life free from discrimination.


At the same time, these extended chapters on trans advocacy, teeming with data and policy details, feel shallower than those that develop the star-crossed romance between McBride and the young transgender rights advocate Andrew Cray. From his first appearance in the book, at President Obama’s White House L.G.B.T. reception in 2012, the narrative intermingles the excitement of new love with the anticipation of its loss. “I think we’d get along pretty swimmingly,” Cray messages McBride on Facebook two months after that encounter, his significance in her life already promising to be as noteworthy as his charming use of an adverb.

Cray takes a central role in “Tomorrow Will Be Different” only when a sore on his tongue turns out to be cancer, which later progresses to his lungs. As McBride cares for Cray, his illness seems to dismantle her walls of pragmatism and perfectionism. At one point she breaks down over a malfunctioning suction machine, falling to the floor in tears and shouting, “I can’t do this!” At another, she decides to spend Christmas with her parents instead of Cray, as much as she knows it will hurt him. These flaws — these moments where she appears least noble — are evidence of this exemplary woman’s humanity.

Cray himself also buoys these scenes with his particular blend of stubbornness and charm. He insists on remaining independent from his family through his illness, only to rely on McBride as his caregiver instead. And yet, as the 27-year-old man sits in the tub and asks, “Can you wash my tush?” in a playful acknowledgment of the infantilizing force of his disease, we understand his irreverence, and how McBride fell so deeply in love. This anxiety over death’s cruel interruption of true love permeates her narrative of Cray’s cancer, their wedding and his passing, which McBride narrates vividly and without the self-consciousness that is at times distancing elsewhere in the book.

Meanwhile, trans identity in McBride and Cray’s love story never becomes abstracted from experience. McBride’s identity enables her specific life circumstances, but it cannot be reduced, codified or turned into a statistic like the one that says 41 percent of trans men and women have attempted suicide (a number the book cites more than once). Even if McBride and Cray’s were the only trans relationship ever in which one person ended up a widow because of the other’s cancer, their immediate connection — the authenticity and specificity of their love — is what inspires the greatest compassion for the universal trans experience, in all its nuance and diversity. The book’s strength lies in its portrayal of McBride and Cray as fully realized individuals beyond their transgender identities.

After Cray’s death, however, McBride’s narrative pivots swiftly back to politics without leaving either her or her readers sufficient space to grieve. This is a young woman who has just lost the love of her life at 24. It doesn’t seem quite enough for her to merely add his name, as tribute, to the list of her accomplishments to date, or to merely participate in policies that Cray helped develop. It feels as though the compromises that become routine in McBride’s advocacy — from her willingness to plead with outright bigots for her basic dignity, to her position at the Human Rights Campaign, a mainstream L.G.B.T. organization that has been criticized by the trans community for prioritizing gay marriage over trans rights — equally compromise her ability to give the reader an accurate picture of her own grief, which could have imbued “Tomorrow Will Be Different” with the enduring quality of other memoirs of loss. With a foreword by former Vice President Joe Biden that frames the book as an instructive tome for trans people, parents and the general public, the book is perhaps positioned less as a lasting literary contribution and more as a manual for tolerance that puts its writer in a good position to run for office.

The inconsistencies and contradictions in McBride’s book reflect the difficulty of trying to explain the transgender experience to a predominantly cisgender public. Some trans readers (myself included) may find themselves growing impatient with the author’s frequent quoting of dire statistics, or her Trans-101-style arguments for bathroom equality. Her case is too often predicated on the idea that the value of trans lives is even up for debate.

I gravitate to the parts of McBride’s memoir in which she relies instead on her sincere and singular identity — as a young widow who was raised as a boy surrounded by an environment of relative privilege despite inner turmoil — to continue her fight for justice. I want to believe that readers across the gender spectrum will be moved by the improbable commingling of two trans lives, and for the cruelty of having one of these lives taken away.

And yet, I confess, I’m not so sure. Perhaps a non-trans reader would appreciate McBride’s appeals to sympathy, like her concluding anecdotes about trans kids she’s encountered (when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, 12-year-old Stella declares, “The first trans president!”). But these episodes feel reminiscent of the politician’s well-worn strategy of using other people’s — especially children’s — stories to humanize contentious political and social issues, when McBride’s own life is testament enough to the validity and intensity of these obstacles.

If “Tomorrow Will Be Different” provides a vision for a future of trans equality, I hope it will be one in which the dignity of transgender individuals is not up to cisgender arbiters for approval. Such a future of true equality would breed not only full respect for the trans community, but also more deeply felt memoirs that are uncompromised by the burden of justification.

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