In a week of big-deal shows, the most ambitious production may be Forum Theatre’s latest, in which characters wrestle with angels and a playwright grapples with themes as big as time and as intimate as death: Perestroika, the second half of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, at once funny and angry and crushingly sad. It’s the satisfying summation, as staged by Michael Dove to pair with Jeremy Skidmore’s dead-on Millennium Approaches, of a passionately humane argument about taking care of one another in a world where change is both constant and the thing that makes us most alive.
Relationships realign in the second half of Angels, as a reluctant prophet (Karl Miller’s haunted, sarcastic Prior Walter) makes first war and then uneasy peace with the lover (Alexander Strain) who’s cut and run in the face of Prior’s AIDS diagnosis—struggling, at the same time, to communicate the enormity of what the angel has told him: Inspired by man’s restlessness, God has gone AWOL, and the engines of creation have started to spin down. Stasis is the fix, the angel insists—“In you the virus of time began,” she thunders, clearly unamused by the after-the-Fall hangover that is universal entropy—and Prior is the man she and her celestial colleagues have chosen to spread the word. Tempting as her gospel of resignation might be to a man whose every breath is a battle, Prior decides it’s too easy: “I want to live past hope,” he says. “I want more life.”
Audaciously imaginative, with its assorted eccentrics and its hallucinatory sidebar excursions, Kushner’s multilayered epic is also rangily intelligent and substantially funnier than you might remember: “This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother,” Prior says, introducing that stern creature (Jennifer Mendenhall) to one of his nurses, who shakes a wondering head and observes: “Even in New York in the ’80s, that is strange.”
On the spare black-box set where they’re still presenting Millennium Approaches on alternate nights, Dove’s cast negotiates the evening’s collisions and quick-changes with no less authority than they bring to the play’s first half. If anything, they warm to their parts: Jim Jorgensen brings a broader palette of colors to his angularly villainous Roy Cohn, now that’s he’s got a death scene (and a morphine-fueled meander or two) to play, and Daniel Eichner allows threads of bitterness and meanness to surface in the character of that errant Mormon, whose confusions prove markedly less pitiable in Perestroika than they seemed at first to be.
And Miller’s Prior, who moved from brittle, camp defiance to confusion and fear in the saga’s opening chapter, turns back from the feverish antics of his prophetic investigations and the desperation of a near-death experience to find a calmer, quieter sort of determination in Perestroika’s gorgeous epilogue. His frame seems spindlier, somehow, and his limp is more pronounced, but his spine is the stronger and he’s aglow with a quiet love. And what he says rings as thrillingly now as it did in 1993, as one American era drew to a close and another opened with something like a promise of hope: “We are not going away,” he insists, tender and quietly defiant. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”