Angels in America – Part 1: Millennium Approaches

It may require divine intervention to get a ticket, but do whatever you can to see Angels in America, the stunningly heart-felt production currently in performances at the Signature Theatre Company. Tony Kushner’s two-part play, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is given a beautifully acted production by the best ensemble onstage in New York.

AIDS is not a new topic to be introduced in theater, whether by the singing bohemians of Rent or the mockery of Team America: World Police, and it cannot be denied that Angels in America, which is set in the mid-eighties and was first performed in the early nineties, is dated. But this production, directed by Michael Greif, emphasizes the themes of the show that are unquestionably timeless as well as inspiring questions about the play from a modern-day perspective.

Multiple stories intertwine in Angels, and all of them have to do with AIDS. As the show opens, Prior Walter (Christian Borle) reveals to his lover Louis (Zachary Quinto) that he has AIDS.  Up-and-coming lawyer Joe Pitt (Bill Heck) is offered a promotion in Washington but his Valium-addicted, delusional wife Harper (Zoe Kazan) does not want to leave their Brooklyn apartment. Closeted McArthy-era lawyer Roy Cohn (Frank Wood) (based upon the actual man of the same name) discovers he has AIDS, which he insists on referring to as liver cancer to protect his reputation. Almost all of the actors play multiple roles of the opposite gender, impressively switching between characters.

The show easily moves from story to story, aided by Mark Wendland’s impressively efficient set of rotating walls that are mainly adorned in shades of gray. As the stories simultaneously unfold, the personal and the political mix until it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

The seamlessness of this production is mainly credited to the members of the cast, each of which is truly superb. Borle, known mainly for his work in musical comedies, is stunning as Prior Walter. He brings a mocking levity to the character, highlighting the dark humor that many people with terminal illnesses rely upon. Borle’s expressive face depicts the anger, sadness and desperation of his character, honoring the roller coaster of emotions that illness can inspire. One of the most moving moments of the show takes place when he states sadly, “I feel dirty,” commenting on his “infected blood”.

Quinto, known as Spock from the new Star Trek movies, gives a revelation of a performance as Prior’s lover Louis. Jewish and closeted from his family, Louis is unable to cope with his lover’s illness and flees from their apartment when Prior is hospitalized. Quinto’s Louis is a remarkable performance, making his fear and anger, as well as his selfishness, an asset rather than a weakness and giving an authentic vulnerability to the knowledge that he is failing the person he loves.

As another unhappy couple, Kazan and Heck are so authentic they are almost painful to watch. As Joe, a deeply closeted homosexual Mormon, Heck proves himself yet again to be one of the most valuable young actors in New York. The star of last season’s Orphan’s Home Cycle, he gives another stellar performance as the quiet, withdrawn, yet frighteningly fierce Joe. Heck emphasizes Joe’s vulnerability and fear as he begins to act on his deeply buried longings.

Played by Kazan, Joe’s wife Harper is a deeply moving, sad woman, with Kazan giving a riveting performance. Her fear and anxiety (especially about the ozone layer) are truly authentic, and one feels invested in her well-being after she has been onstage for only a few moments.

Numerous supporting characters are played by the excellent Robin Bartlett, who steals the scene as an elderly rabbi, Joe’s mother Hannah and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

Angels in America is set in the mid-eighties, and frequent references of President Regan are made by the cast, as well as to the “new” medication AZT. In this time, being diagnosed with this illness was almost a certain death sentence. This has changed, but the fear and anger of sick patients has not. The twenty-plus years that have passed since the setting of this play has only enhanced the relevance of the show, inspiring reflection on what AIDS was then, compared to now, as well as the treatment of homosexuals by the world. Terminal illness is still part of our world – look at the cancer epidemic. This show is no longer ground-breaking and shocking, but it is poignant, powerful and very important.

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