The cliffhanger that concludes the first half of Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America is designed to stun. It's the moment when the angel -- an earth-shattering vision or a violent fever dream, or both -- crashes through Prior Walter's bedroom ceiling to deliver a prophetic message.
However, in Court Theatre's glorious yet frustratingly uneven production, the angel appears (following a momentum-killing blackout) dangling precariously above Walter's bed. While actress Mary Beth Fisher delivers her lines with the requisite grand imperiousness, something's missing. And then it hits me.
This angel doesn't have wings.
Yes, I get that there are numerous technicalities to negotiate when retrofitting this complex moment in Court's fly-less space, but this omission seemed a major misstep. We're given a theatrical pop and fizzle when a soul-shaking explosion is in order.
But that's just a few minutes (crucial as they are) in this seven hour masterpiece made up of two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika (both of which I saw in one day, with a two-hour dinner break in between -- the recommended viewing option, IMHO). The remaining moments of Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning work, which is set in the mid-'80s during the rise of the mainstream awareness of the AIDS epidemic, prove that brilliant writing paired with fearless acting can, indeed, overcome sterile direction.
If there's any reason to see this production (and there are many, many reasons), it's for Rob Lindley's brave, bitchy and heartbreaking turn as Prior Walter, a gay man battling AIDS whose vivid and prophetic fever dreams provide entrée into this "gay fantasia on national themes." Lindley starts off whiny, victimized and defensive and evolves into a formidable being who knows what he wants out of life, but also understands his limitations. His performance will stick with you.
Another standout is Larry Yando's perfectly pitched take on deplorable republican attorney Roy Cohn. Yando manages to make you both despise and sympathize with the man as he rages until his last violent breaths. (Cohn, whom many suspected as a closeted gay man, died of AIDS, and Kushner uses this historical footnote to drive home many of the play's more sobering ideas, such as the notion of healthcare access to the privileged and the perception of homosexuals, particularly those with AIDS, in mainstream society.)
And there are other wonderful performances from this eight-member ensemble cast who act their faces off while often playing multiple roles, including Hollis Resnik, who, primarily, provides a disoriented yet dutiful Mormon mother who proves that humanity can overcome prejudice.
I just wish this cast was in a stronger production. Charlie Newell's stark staging uses a tiered, single unit set (by John Culbert) that gives the entire affair a barren, grim vibe. A platform in the center of the stage, which represents a bench, (death) bed and mausoleum, is the only permanent fixture. On paper, this sounds appropriately streamlined for such fluid, poetic work. But, as an audience member, the choppy staging, accented by dim and oddly angled lighting, is too conceptual and, ultimately, wearisome.
While the timeliness of the play may have faded over time, it's no less relevant nor powerful. It remains a boldly composed masterwork filled with universal themes that's required viewing. True, the second half does tend to get a little preachy and Newell's sober staging overlooks the magic and humor of the piece at times, but the payoff is well worth it.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika play in rep at the Court Theatre through June 3. More info here.