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Can you spare seven irreplaceable hours of your life, travel to and from Bethesda not included, for Angels in America—Tony Kushner’s bifurcated-and-unequal, maddening-but-nourishing, unfathomable-and-illuminating, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “gay fantasia on national themes”?
You could be forgiven for some reluctance. Seven hours is enough temporal real estate to catch more than half a season of Luke Cage. Mike Nichols’ Emmy-winning HBO miniseries Angels in America, adapted by Kushner himself, is easily available. It’s widely accepted as a triumph, one of a tiny number of plays converted from spittle into light with no loss, and streamlined by an hour. Yet if you’re the sort of person for whom the phrase “the magic of the theatre” has even the slimmest potential to evoke something other than an eye-roll, you’ll find Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s supersized joint revival an investment that pays off, well, big. Even were it not so powerfully performed by seven of D.C.’s best actors (no offense to Jonathan Bock, the only member of the cast who doesn’t perform here regularly), the opportunity to wrestle with the Angels, anew or for the first time, would be heaven-sent. As it were.
And wrestle with this diptych you must. While a quarter-century of fitful but real advancement in antiretroviral drugs and LGBTQ rights has dulled its urgency just a little, Angels in America now has the kind of cultural footprint that makes a pure experience of it, unmarred by expectation, almost impossible. Premiering in San Francisco in 1991 and dominating Broadway in 1993-4, it was the last specimen of theatre to penetrate the national conversation until Hamilton came along. The degree to which it was embraced seems miraculous even now. It has no rhymes or melodies to help its ideas go down, and those ideas are not easily summarized. Nor does it have easy-to-root-for heroes. The only ambitious, legacy-minded American in it is Roy Cohn, the ruthless assistant to Joseph McCarthy (and attorney/mentor to Donald Trump) who lived long enough after being diagnosed with what he publicly insisted was “liver cancer” to see himself disbarred and disgraced before his death in 1986.
And he’s not even the most unlikeable character! That would be the comically misnamed Louis Ironson (Bock), the hyperarticulate but spineless Kushner stand-in who leaves his lover, Prior Walter (Tom Story), once Prior gets sick. Stirred in among the human mess of relationships shattering and re-binding in an AIDS-ravaged New York circa 1985-6 are scenes addressing Mormonism, Bolshevism, and procedures in the celestial parliament that I won’t pretend to understand. But I will lean in for them on the next production, and the next and the next.
Kushner’s magnum opus was last produced locally seven years ago, when Forum Theatre presented both parts in a skeletal format. This time, we get to see the angel (Dawn Ursula) fly. James Kronzer’s imposing set looks like a Gothic warehouse or infernal train depot, its wall of arched windowpanes doubling as display surfaces for Clint Allen’s video projections. These transport us from Manhattan to Antarctica to Heaven, and—coupled with Joshua Horvath’s menacing soundbed—help make the angel fearsome even though Ursula’s flight rig remains plainly visible. (Kushner endorses this seams-exposed approach in a script note.)
Anyway, Angels’ enormity has always come from its scope, not its spectacle. Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, helmed the more oft-staged Millennium, while Round House leader Ryan Rillette directed the messier (and even longer) Perestroika. One benefit of the merger is that the production could afford a luxurious two months of rehearsals before performances of Millennium began. (Perestroika opened three weeks later; both are now running in rep.) Nearly all these actors have worked together before, but they have never felt like a more persuasive ensemble than they do here. In the rare instances they’re all on stage together, a charge ripples through the room. Each plays multiple roles, and each has a distinct arc of suffering, discovery, and mercy to sell. They are, to a one, sublime.
Square-jawed and upright, Thomas Keegan is a superb choice for Joe, the Mormon court clerk whom Cohn tries to groom as his sleeper agent within the Reagan Administration’s Justice Department. Joe gradually awakens to and accepts his gayness, while Cohn withers away still furiously denying his own. Kimberly Gilbert is heartbreaking as Harper, Joe’s spiraling, valium-addicted wife, who struggles to understand the gulf of intimacy between them. (That Keegan and Gilbert played a very different sort of troubled couple in Woolly Mammoth’s Women Laughing Alone with Salad only a year ago is a sort of Easter Egg for #DCtheatre nerds. But this isn’t even the first Pulitzer winner that Gilbert, Ursula, and the great Mitchell Hebert have performed together. They were all in the second-ever production of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park in 2010.)
As Cohn, Hebert captures all the man’s facets—bully, coward, and victim, to cite the AIDS quilt patch Kushner recalls seeing with Cohn’s name on it as he was writing. (This anecdote comes from the fascinating oral history of the play that Isaac Butler and Dan Kois published on Slate in June; its book-length expansion is due in 2018.) Hebert sometimes seems to be mimicking Al Pacino’s inflections more than Cohn’s—a curious inspiration, as Pacino played the part in the HBO series. Sarah Marshall does noble service as Joe’s mother, who flies from Salt Lake City to Manhattan to try to find out why he’s left his wife, and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted-but-possibly-innocent Soviet spy whom Cohn, as a 24-year-old prosecutor, saw to it was executed for treason along with her husband.
After Cohn, the biggest personality in the play is Belize, an African-American night nurse and former drag queen who shows the dying man kindness despite his incessant abuse. (He’s also forced to parley with him once he obtains a rare and precious life-extending stash of AZT in what might be his final act of blackmail.) Jon Hudson Odom, an actor who has propelled himself to the first rank after a comparatively small number of D.C. performances, is secure in his known abilities here. Despite a few fun interludes as Mr. Lies, a flamboyantly pimp-styled “travel agent” who appears in Harper’s hallucinations, there’s nothing as outwardly arduous as, say, his recent leading role in Woolly’s An Octoroon. That show required him to inhabit two separate characters having a fistfight with one another—and to play the playwright, too. This one merely requires him to be the rock everyone else leans on.
In 1990, panicking that the play San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre had commissioned from him was swelling beyond his control, Kushner appealed to artistic director Oskar Eustis. “I can’t get these people to change fast enough!” he said. That’s when what was supposed to be one play not to exceed two hours became two plays, both exceeding three.
It’s a commitment. But faith shall be rewarded, as it goes.
4545 East-West Hwy, Bethesda. $10–$66. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.