It's been 25 years since I last saw Angels in America
, which remains one of the most powerful theatergoing experiences I've ever had.
I was so overwhelmed by the original production that I've long been afraid to revisit the show, as if somehow the very idea of seeing it again would negate the intensity of emotions I felt when I saw it the first time. But if the excellent National Theatre revival, currently at the Simon, teaches me anything, it's that I needn't have held my memories in such precious check. Sometimes, going back to see a beloved show is like checking in with an old friend you haven't seen in decades, only to find that you can easily pick up exactly where you last left off.
I saw the production over the course of two Sundays, both early enough in the run to notice a significant increase in fluidity between parts one and two. At least at that point, Millennium Approaches
suffered a bit from a lack of design cohesion: lights glared and swamped the actors, casting enormous shadows across the set and making it hard to see facial features; trapdoors failed to open or close on cue; clunky scenery revolved around the stage making distracting grindy noises. I'm hoping at least some of this has been addressed, though I assume it's too late to fix the set design as a whole. I understand the attempt to mirror the deeply unhappy, restlessly boxed-in lives of the newly abandoned, bedridden Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and the valium-addled claustrophobe Harper Pitt (Denise Gough). Still, the stage is densely crowded through much of part one with tiny, neon-studded compartments--apartments, offices, restaurants--that look unfinished and cheap. These all eventually give way, along with Prior and Harper's hold on reality, to wider, less constrictive spaces. I have no idea how to represent ugly and confining without actually being
ugly and confining, but the first half of the piece doesn't quite manage it.
You know what, though? It doesn't matter, especially since this is truly the only significant criticism I can come up with. Once the set opens up late in part one, the production is beautiful--and alas, its stark political landscape remains relevant, even if we have evolved by leaps and bounds when it comes to sexuality and gender. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess; at least it's reassuring to have lasting artwork that reminds us of where we've been, how far we've come, and where we still desperately need to go.
While it was impossible for me not to compare the production with the original, this one holds its own due in very large part to an excellent cast. While I was impressed with the entire company, I feel compelled to single out Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, only because I've only ever seen Lane in loose, comic roles, and I fully admit that I've long underestimated him. Kushner's Cohn character is the roaring id that centers the epic, and Lane's take on him is arrogant, power-drunk, self-pitying...and squirmily endearing. Lane's Cohn is very much a monster, but the kind whose influence and reach make perfect sense, especially when he shows anything approximating humanity. Clearly, as a certain current president the real Cohn once mentored now demonstrates on a daily basis, rotten breeds rotten, and power-hungry people will always tolerate monsters with money and reach, no matter how putrescent their souls.
One of the many enduring strengths of Angels in America
, perhaps regardless of the production, is that the characters in it are all so personable and approachable and flawed and real. The play takes frequent flights from reality, but its characters keep it firmly grounded--even when they find themselves meandering stoned through a hallucinatory Antarctica, walking the streets in a black-clad delirium, tangling with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, going on intellectual diatribes that justify childish behavior, or wrestling with ominously creepy-crawly angels (here rendered through movement, puppetry, and costume in endlessly mesmerizing ways). I've missed these wise-cracking, smart, funny, human fuckups, I realize--enough that I won't be waiting another 25 years to catch up with them again to find out how they--and we--have fared.