Huffpost Arts
David Finkle Headshot

First Nighter: Tony Kushner's Angels in America Flies on Gossamer Wings

Posted: Updated:

Tony Kushner's seven-hour Angels in America, divided into "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika," is the great American play of the 1990s. It's not, however, a perfect play, which Kushner is the first to acknowledge. Since the 1993 debut, he's continued tinkering with it. As recently as the just-opened Signature Theatre Company revival, he reportedly tweaked "Perestroika" but left "Millennium Approaches" alone.

Nevertheless, the Kushner opus is so astonishing for its bravura reach that the most picayune critics would likely swap it in a heartbeat for a dozen safer but less ambitious comedy-dramas. Sporting the subtitle "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," and telling three interlocking stories, Angels in America is an up-perilously-close and personal look at the complex and often defeating nature of love.

At the same time, it's a sly discourse on Hegelian dialectics as playing out in the pre- and now post-millennial United States -- more specifically, New York City, where the focal figures reside. Plus, Angels in America is devilishly funny. How could it not be when in the opening speech, a rabbi delivering a eulogy for a woman whom he's never met bitterly refers to American as "a melting pot where nothing melted," and immediately after that, the character-based gags keep coming like the proverbial bats out of hell?

The "gay" part of the subtitle is reflected in two of the intertwined stories Kushner tells with passionate urgency. In one, Prior Walter (Christian Borle), the latest in several centuries of Prior Walters, loses his lover, walking encyclopedia Louis Ironson (Zachary Quinto), when his AIDS condition worsens and Louis slinks off. In the other thwarted-love tale, closeted Joe Pitt (Bill Heck), a Mormon, and his Valium-popping wife Harper (Zoe Kazan) can't hack it.

A third love story could be the one in which Roy Cohn (Frank Wood) carries on an affair with himself. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, he strong arms his physician into labeling it liver cancer, but can't dissuade his flamboyantly gay but highly proficient nurse Belize (Billy Porter) from calling by its rightful name. Nor can the foul-mouthed Cohn -- who values loyalty (as the real Cohn famously did) -- banish the Ethel Rosenberg (Robin Bartlett) he guiltily imagines watching over him on his death bed.

But wait! There's a fourth love story. It's humanity's love/hate relationship with God, whom Kushner depicts as walking out on mankind--not unlike Louis walks out on Prior and Joe and Harper vie to walk out on each other. This devastating celestial betrayal is experienced as well by an angelic host -- the first participant revealed being an angel (Robin Weigert) who appears to and terrifies the hallucinating Prior.

Gracing "Perestroika," these angels are a crucial element in Kushner's view of the unending battle between good and evil that disturbs his Earthlings. The outcome of the bout, wherein Prior finds himself confronting them in their higher domain, eventually leads Kushner to foresee hope, at least tentatively.

Prior's insistent Angel -- whose arrival is an indelible coup de theatre engineered by director Michael Greif, lighting designer Ben Stanton, sound designer Ken Travis, costume designer Clint Ramos and aerial designer Paul Rubin -- is important to the "fantasia" element of the subtitle. While the angel is a thrill of no trivial dimension, she's also a tip-off to Kushner's billowing excesses.

Whereas all the "gay" ingredients are inextricable from his two-part achievement, the "fantasia" dollops -- especially the scene in a heaven Prior Walter believes he's visiting -- don't so much strain credulity as test patience. The sequence and others in which Harper, also hallucinating, is featured are where the ever-revising Kushner has yet to find the right balance.

The demands Angels in America puts on its eight actors--all but Borle and Quinto doubling--are profuse, but Greif sees to it that not a one lets the team down. Perhaps Quinto, the screen's new Dr. Spock, is the most astonishing. He makes a New York stage debut of remarkable verve, intelligence and conviction. Borle, hitherto more familiar in musicals, gives the constant impression--as he brings Prior to life, and near death--of having something horrible gnawing at his innards. Watch his black-rimmed eyes for those hints.

Billy Porter's finger-snapping Belize, Bill Heck's profoundly tormented Joe, Kazan's on-edge Harper are all persuasive. Wood, looking shockingly like Cohn if too tall for the determinedly fellow, sometimes seems to be working from the outside in but plays many of his scenes with setting-teeth-on-edge fury. As Rosenberg, Bartlett (where did Ramos find that hat?) masters an unforgiving stare and is just as good as Joe's unexpectedly understanding Mormon mom. Weigert, playing, among other roles, the avenging angel and a notably non-avenging nurse, soars in a couple ways.

Because an AIDS diagnosis -- still sounding like a death sentence when Kushner introduced the play -- is now a chronic illness for the most part and because AIDS is so inherent to the drama, the "dated" tag could seem to hover over Angels in America as Prior's Angel floats ominously over him. But the Signature production retains the saga's power, perhaps because nowadays AIDS can register meaningfully as more of a metaphor than it did 17 years ago.

Only a reference to the now-closed St. Vincent's Hospital and two of Wendall K. Harrington's many evocative projections -- one of the Twin Towers, one of the shuttered West Village eatery, Joe Jr., -- are in any way old-hat. Otherwise, Angels in America remains superlative theater-going and a spectacular achievement.