If you’ve been waiting for the reviews before buying tickets to the D.C. premiere of Angels in America, go ahead. Tony Kushner’s enormously theatrical two-evening dissertation on power, justice, and personal redemption in the age of AIDS is an intimate epic in its local incarnation, so ask for seats up close…but settle for whatever you can get. This self-styled “gay fantasia on national themes” hasn’t just arrived intact at the Eisenhower Theater, it’s arrived in a staging that is in many senses an improvement on the Broadway version—simpler, more direct, and far clearer about the messages it brings home with a thunderous flutter of angelic wings.
The Broadway Angels felt like a Woolly Mammoth play writ large. Tarted up by director George C. Wolfe with entertaining spectacle, it often seemed at odds with its own content. The script’s wild shifts from campy gossip to religious revelation to radical social diatribe were calculated not to soothe audiences in the manner of the megamusicals down the street but to shake patrons up—yet that wasn’t true of Wolfe’s production. Framed by a glistening postmodern Greek temple, it was filled with visual images that seemed to have been designed to compete with those of Miss Saigon. The effect was heady but overpowering, with intimate moments sometimes getting lost in the shuffle.
Stripped of extraneous folderol in Michael Mayer’s smart, down-to-earth staging at the Eisenhower, Millennium Approaches, the show’s evening-long first half (its second, Perestroika, opens June 2) comes across as streamlined and speedy.
What’s gone is the heaviness. On Broadway, when a character hallucinated herself to Antarctica, massive icebergs floated serenely from the wings accompanied by dry-ice fog. At the Eisenhower, a huge sheet billows and takes us there just as effectively.
The show remains a deliriously surreal black comedy with a cast of characters that includes a 12th-century barbarian, McCarthyite Roy M. Cohn, an African-American drag queen, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and a glorious angel who crashes through the roof to tell the audience that “the messenger has arrived” just as the final curtain is descending. But its plot now seems focused even more firmly than before on the disintegration of two relationships—one nominally straight, between a closeted Mormon lawyer named Joe (Philip Earl Johnson) and his pill-popping wife Harper (Kate Goehring); the other between AIDS-stricken Prior (Robert Sella) and his guilt-ridden lover Louis (Peter Birkenhead).
Their stories intersect when Joe and Louis—diametric opposites in virtually everything except the fact that they’re about to leave spouses who need them desperately—meet by chance in a restroom. Louis is sobbing over his own weakness, Joe is toughing things out. But when a jokey reference to gay Republicans leaves Louis energized and Joe off-balance, the tables are turned. In that conversation, which has everything to do with exercising power by defining terms, Kushner lays out his method—and his message. Angels can be seen as a series of such reversals, with characters wielding power in peculiar ways, offhandedly sometimes, and with deliberation and a knowing cruelty at others.
The character who is most conscious of this in Millennium is Roy Cohn, the reprehensible right-wing ideologue whom Kushner has fashioned as Joe’s mentor and the play’s central villain. Cohn, a man for whom power is everything, is naturally the one who most clearly articulates the evening’s power equation—embodies it, really. When a doctor tries to tell him he has AIDS, he ferociously maintains that AIDS is a disease for homosexuals, and his taste for sex with men notwithstanding, he cannot be a homosexual because homosexuals have “zero clout.” This is a sequence that plays differently today than it did as recently as eight months ago, when gay activists were still confident that things were going their way. So does a subsequent passage in which a Cohn ally lays out a view, circa 1985, of the lay of the political land: “Republican judges like land mines everywhere they turn. Affirmative action? Take it to court. Boom!…We’ll get our way on just about everything: Abortion, defense, Central America, family values. It’s really the end of liberalism…the dawning of a genuinely American political personality modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan.”
So much of what alarmed Kushner when he was writing the play a scant two years ago has since come to pass that the political rhetoric of Angels is beginning to feel a bit dated. But the play’s reckoning of how individuals wield power and how that affects those who love them still comes through with a vengeance. And as the characters collide, knocking one another off balance, forcing re-evaluations and fresh alliances, it’s still possible to see in their maneuvers the outlines of the social schisms that make this a fantasia on national themes.
The touring ensemble is remarkably strong, from Sella’s rendingly delicate Prior to Reg Flowers’ wittily outspoken Belize (the drag queen/nurse who’ll have much more to do in Perestroika). Carolyn Swift, well-known to area audiences as a quirky presence at Round House and Olney theaters, lends a nice weirdness to multiple roles as an electric-coiffed nurse, a psychotic bag lady, a chirpy real estate agent, and the titular angel. Barbara Robertson is rock solid as a raft of well-grounded characters from Joe’s Mormon mom to a bearded rabbi. Birkenhead is a convincing nervous wreck as Louis, and Goehring and Johnson sneak up on you as the play’s mismatched Mormons, both chilly at first but warming as they drift apart. On Broadway, Cohn was played as an out-and-out monster, but at the Eisenhower, gravel-voiced Jonathan Hadary accents the character’s nastiness with a seductive, almost pixie-ish quality that makes his stranglehold on straight-arrow Joe explicable. He also, by smiling relentlessly as he says his most Machiavellian lines, lends the play’s political machinations aGingrichian edge.
If I’m making all this sound deadly serious, rest assured that the play doesn’t. While often wrenching, Millennium Approaches scores most of its points through humor. Almost as soon as Prior has referred to his first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion as “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” for instance, he lapses into the rhythms and syntax of punch lines: “I’m a lesionnaire…the Foreign Lesion, the American Lesion…my troubles are lesion.” Not that things won’t dark en in Perestroika, the redemptive half of Kushner’s unconventional epic—how odd that catastrophe should prompt laughter while redemption prompts tears—but that’s still a month away.
Arena’s surprisingly sprightly A Month in the Country begins with a card game and an argument about language—each, in its way, a clue to the gentle, disorderly Russian madness that follows. As one thoroughly flustered card player confuses her partner by playing ineptly, he makes things infinitely worse by misusing idioms in his responses. Since Ivan Turgenev’s plot is concerned entirely with miscues in the game of love, you’ll note that the evening’s themes have been laid out with brisk efficiency.
They’re embellished in Kyle Donnelly’s staging of Brian Friel’s new adaptation with more wit and hilarity than most patrons will expect in a pre-Chekhovian plot line. Credit the script—especially since a Broadway production of someone else’s translation just bowed to reviews that spoke mostly of suffocating sighs—but also credit Donnelly’s mastery of the character-based humor that is a Friel specialty. The combination worked wonders in Arena’s Dancing at Lughnasa and, if anything, these two are more simpatico this time.
As the lights come up, it’s midsummer madness time at the Islayev estate. Middle-aged Natalya (Mary Beth Piel) has worked herself into a tizzy over her son’s dashing young tutor Aleksey (Joseph Fuqua), and has confided as much to Michel (Gary Sloan), a family friend who has long carried a torch for her in pained silence. Natalya’s 17-year-old ward Vera (Kristina Nielsen) also has a crush on Aleksey, but is being wooed by an unsavory neighbor (Jeffrey V. Thompson) who is in league with an unctuous doctor (Henry Strozier), and on and on. The older characters pursue romantic liaisons with calculation, the youngsters with utter naiveté, and just about the only person who doesn’t get swept up in the giddiness is Natalya’s elderly mother-in-law (Halo Wines).
Not only does this sound in synopsis a bit like Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but it’s being played at Arena with the knowing, self-aware sophistication that characterizes that work. Piel’s graceful, assured Natalya is such a splendidly theatrical creature that the others seem to circle her as planets do a star—appropriately so, since they’re at some risk of being scorched when they venture too close. Both Sloan’s torturously reserved Michel and Nielsen’s impetuously trusting Vera get burned that way, and if Fuqua’s Aleksey doesn’t, it’s only because he’s a bit of a space cadet to start with. Off in their own little solar systems are Richard Bauer’s malaprop-spewing foreign guest and Strozier’s doctor, a self-described “bitter, angry, cunning peasant” who masks his contempt for his social betters by telling jokes and playing them against one another.
The fading, 19th-century world they’re romping through is lovingly abstracted in Linda Buchanan’s spare, unexpectedly wildflower-studded setting, the midsummer glow conjured by Rita Pietraszek’s lighting design, and Rob Milburn’s subtle sound design, which evokes country meadows while making classical music jokes. If Donnelly’s staging seems leisurely at first—I heard a complaint at intermission that the show was turning into two months in the country—rest assured that the time she spends establishing the characters ultimately pays off. By midway through the second act, Tana Hicken’s tight-lipped widow can get laughs with lines like “Well, well, well, well, well.” And once the romances go awry, the director is able to milk the pain of these frivolous, silly characters for a good deal of genuine pathos.