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First rule of theater criticism: Don’t assume. Or at least overcome your assumptions and get your ass to the theater, even when you don’t really feel like it.
I’ll confess I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about trekking out to Shirlington to see the second half of Angels in America—in part because I remembered the conclusion to Tony Kushner’s epic “gay fantasia on national themes” as less magical, more earthbound than the first half. Besides, I’d seen what Signature Theatre was doing with the show in its first part, Millennium Approaches, last month, and I liked most of its elements well enough. Why bother with what seemed like the lesser of the two parts?
Because Angels is so much the sum of those parts. Because the intimacy of this production illuminates the entirety of the play in ways I found invigorating and revelatory. Because I was younger and less weary when I saw it the first time, and so its energy and anger and humor seem all the more restorative now. Because the rush that comes from Kushner’s intoxicatingly intelligent wordplay is that much headier now that there’s a little more room in my own head (and heart) for its ideas to resonate.
Perestroika is much less pessimistic, much more moving, and much wittier than I remember from the Broadway tour. “This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother,” says the AIDS-stricken, angel-plagued prophet Prior Walter at one point, and from his flamboyant friend Belize comes the reply: “Even in New York, in the ’80s, that is strange.”
What’s unchanged, I’m pleased to report, is the way Kushner weaves together the profound and the peculiar with a perverse and exhilarating ease. Mormon history and mythology share the stage with a quick rundown on the anatomy of angels, not to mention wisecracks about Ed Koch’s sexuality and a one-liner that manages to sneer at Ayn Rand’s writing and her philosophy in the same breath. At the outset, an antiquated Bolshevik makes a fierce argument for careful and thorough theorizing before any attempt at revolution. (In this respect, the character, played by Marcia Gardner, bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the more earnest queer-rights activists of the late ’80s and early ’90s.) Many scenes later, in a moment that still crackles with hair-raising theatrical electricity, the same actress is the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, briefly possessing a passionately leftist gay Jew so that together they may recite the Kaddish over the not-quite-cold corpse of Roy Cohn.
Prior’s angel goes that ancient Bolshevik one better, arguing against any change at all: It’s humanity’s restless seeking, she says wrathfully, that has inspired God himself to go questing for something new and different, and it’s the old man’s absence from the local scene that has left the world in its present parlous state. Her insistence that we simply stop—reach for stasis, achieve stillness, and thereby end the upheavals that threaten heaven and earth alike—lets Prior and the rest reply with what is Kushner’s thesis, bleak and hopeful at once: Change is messy and inevitable, grievously painful and necessary, and at the same time ripe with the potential for something better. Pain and promise are bound inextricably together, Kushner says, and the one makes the other bearable.
Rick Hammerly completes what is surely the performance of his career with a Prior who’s funnier and more fierce, if that’s possible, than he was in Signature’s Millennium Approaches. Lee Mikeska Gardner’s direction remains uneven, and John Lescault, as Prior’s inconsistently humanist ex-lover Louis, continues to mystify me with an acting style that’s all surface, little style, and no discernible sensitivity.
But Melissa Flaim, as Harper, has subtlety enough to make up for Lescault’s lack of it, Kimberly Schraf makes a petulant sort of principality out of the messenger angel, and Paul Morella’s mesmerizingly rabid Cohn gives the play a vicious balance. Craig Wallace adds priceless flair as Belize, and Marcia Gardner is a sturdy, compassionate Mother Pitt (and effective in her array of smaller roles).
If the situations and settings in Perestroika are neither near nor far away enough to escape a slight feeling of datedness, its concerns and conclusions are unmistakably timeless. Kushner wrestles with the angels and devils of our humanity here—and leaves us exhausted, uplifted, exhilarated with the thought that the struggle just may not be in vain.
Second rule of theater criticism: Sometimes your assumptions turn out to be right. I had my suspicions, when I read that Studio Theatre Secondstage’s The Wild Party was a “unique new conceptual piece,” that creator and director Keith Alan Baker’s reach would exceed his grasp. And sure enough, “wild” turns out to be the mot juste for what he has wrought: Before it’s three-quarters over with, you’ll be a little wild-eyed yourself.
It’s not that the material isn’t juicy: Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 verse narrative is a hard-boiled passion play, a gin- and glamour-soaked account of a vaudeville hottie, her bastard of a boyfriend, and the anything-goes soiree that leaves one of them rather less lively than before. But in staging it, Baker interpolates a string of vaudeville diversions that grow rapidly less diverting as the evening gets longer.
John Tweel is deft enough as the not-quite-offstage narrator; Edu. Bernardino’s ’20s-New York outfits are drop-dead; and Janet Pryce enjoys herself quite a bit as Queenie, the sloe-eyed blonde at the bottom of all the story’s trouble.
Yuval Cohen and Daniel Wolfson, as an incestuous and oddly compelling brother act, stand out among the surprisingly large ensemble—and Wolfson, at the very outset of the evening, provides its most moodily effective moment with a pair of torches and an expression that seems to say that the story could go in almost any direction you could imagine.
As it happens, March takes a number of interesting directions on his own, in offbeat couplets as wry as they are wicked: “A grand piano stood in the corner/With the air of a coffin waiting for a mourner,” he tells us, not long before he successfully rhymes “captive satyr” with “percolator.”
But there are a great many small subplots in The Wild Party, and Baker dwells on them sometimes at the expense of the main narrative. And, although the production makes good use of Studio’s upstairs space, its tech values are less than admirable: A bit with a scrim and a projector is all but indecipherable.
Chiefly, though, the trouble is with those cabaret moments, which stop the story dead so characters can perform an illusion or a soft-shoe or a salacious strip to Minnie the Moocher. I ask you, is a bit of audience-participation magic really necessary at the 90-minute mark of an entertainment whose end you’ve seen coming since Minute No. 10? Not at my parties. CP