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.
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”).
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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