‘Angels in America, Part One’ at Arena
By April 13, 2023 0 1790•
The subtitle of part one of “Angels in America,” at Arena Stage through April 23, is “Millennium Approaches.” Set in the fall of 1985, the first half of Tony Kushner’s AIDS-era epic sustains a giddy mood of impending apocalypse for three and a half hours. Ronald Reagan is in the fifth year of his presidency, a deadly virus is spreading and a hole has opened in the ozone layer.
“Maybe Christ will come again,” ventures Harper Pitt. Captivatingly portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll, Harper is a Mormon, so her belief in the Second Coming makes sense. Since she is also an emotionally unstable Valium addict — in part because her conservative-lawyer husband Joe is a repressed homosexual — many things in her life do not.
When we first meet Harper, she starts up a conversation with a derby-wearing man who crawled from a metal grate: Mr. Lies, played by Justin Weaks as a sort of surreal Sportin’ Life, the character from “Porgy and Bess.” Later on, the two rendezvous in conceptual Antarctica beneath the ozone hole, Harper in a white snowsuit, Mr. Lies in shaggy yellow furs (and carrying a mist machine).
But Harper’s not the only one who seems to be — pardon the expression — going nuts. “Why are you in my hallucination?” she demands, noticing drag performer Prior Walter, winningly portrayed by Nick Westrate, in the “Threshold of Revelation” scene. “I’m not in your hallucination,” he responds. “You’re in my dream.”
The telltale lesions of “KS,” Kaposi sarcoma — each “the wine-dark kiss of the Angel of Death,” as he tells his lover Louis Ironson, with grim humor — are multiplying on Prior’s body. Before long, and for most of the play, he is adrift in a daze of anxiety and pain.
Directed by János Szász, with over-the-top costumes by Oana Botez and a metaphysical set by Maruti Evans — a giant Zen sand garden, freshly spritzed and raked, framing a lift-equipped hole, overhung with a torn “ozone layer” of plastic and two dozen plastic-wrapped chandeliers that descend as needed — the production is continually in motion.
Scenes flow into one another and overlap. In the “quartet,” we witness the simultaneous, cat’s-cradle breakup of Harper and Joe — played by clean-cut John Austin, who wears his conflicted nature on his blue-suited sleeve — and of Nick and Lou — Michael Kevin Darnall as the playwright’s over-articulate avatar, ridden by guilt, Jewish and otherwise.
With a bare minimum of props, actors rise and descend through the central hole, address each of the Fichandler Stage’s four sides, go up and down the seating-area staircases and, without obvious motivation, jog in a circle. Reflecting a script brimming over with philosophical flights, political rants, bizarre tangents (Kushner majored in medieval studies at Columbia), cosmic babble, combative dialogue, words of love, wisecracks and expletives, the borders between ritual, fantasy and stylized reality are highly porous.
Have I mentioned that sand sometimes streams through the tears in the “ozone layer”? Or that two indelible songs, the pumping 1984 hit “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the 1965 Yiddish trinket “Chiribim Chiribom” by the Barry Sisters, bathe the audience’s ears more than once?
Most of the expletives spout from the mouth of amoral attorney Roy Cohn, perhaps the American Century’s most ruthless fixer, who prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage, served as chief counsel to Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his Red Scare and Lavender Scare witch-hunts and later advised a stable of New York clients including several Mafia figures, George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump. Embodying Kushner’s Cohn, Edward Gero is at his Mephistophelian best, complete with tongue-flicks.
Why Cohn? Because he was a closeted homosexual who used his power to exploit and persecute gay men whenever it suited him. A high-pitched scene between Cohn and his hazmat-suited doctor, Henry, who diagnoses the HIV infection that would kill Cohn at 59 in 1986, is flawlessly delivered by Gero and Susan Rome.
Yes, women play men at times: Woll appears as the slimy Martin Heller, a (fictional) official in Reagan’s Justice Department, plotting the death of Liberalism — seasoned Washingtonians may feel a frisson of recognition — and Rome comes onstage early on, at Lou’s grandmother’s funeral, as an orthodox rabbi with a tallis like the train of a coronation gown.
Rome also plays Joe’s mother Hannah — who speaks to him from Salt Lake City via a stage-spanning telephone cord when, drunk near the Central Park Boathouse, a gay cruising spot, he calls her, blurting out, “I’m a homosexual, Momma!” — and, in a grotesquely delightful scene, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, in cat-eye glasses and a Russian-style fur hat.
“Buttons!” Rosenberg exclaims in Cohn’s apartment, having never seen such a phone, as she calls an ambulance for the stricken man who pushed to have her sent to the electric chair.
All the cast members except Darnall play more than one part. Weaks also excels as Prior’s ex Belize, at his bedside with affection and “voodoo cream.” When Belize goes head-to-head with Lou on the topics of love, loyalty, racism and antisemitism, he breaks the fourth wall to amusingly check in with audience members.
The versatile Billie Krishawn plays the white-winged, sign-language-adept Angel, a hospital nurse, a Salt Lake real estate agent and a homeless woman in the South Bronx, where Joe’s distraught mom has cluelessly ended up. Leaving his hospital bed (offstage), Westrate dons leather for a nasty turn as “Man in Park.” Finally, a brief cosplay by Austin and Gero as Prior’s namesake ancestors beggars description; let’s just say Botez went to town.
“Angels” began as a commission from San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, now defunct. While part two was in development, the play that became part one premiered at Eureka in 1991. After productions in London and New York, “Millennium Approaches” won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The complete work, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” was first presented in 1992 at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum.
The early ’90s are 30 years ago, a long time. Even those of us who were around, many of whom lost family members and friends, find it difficult — both emotionally and because so much has changed — to recall what those years were like. Given that we are in the midst of a pandemic and attempts to restrict civil liberties, LGBTQ rights in particular, the play’s themes are relevant. But Kushner’s juggling of the personal and the political and his mingling of tragedy with (gallows) humor, along with the play’s depiction of gay love and sex — even its use of the “f-bomb” — were exceptionally daring during the panic-filled first decade of AIDS.
As a contextual and memorial gesture, before the start of each Arena performance and during intermission, voices are heard reading a litany of names of persons who died of AIDS (including celebrities such as Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson). This only goes so far. Most would agree that the open wounds, so to speak, that gave the play its unique power when first performed are no longer present.
Nonetheless, even removed from the human crisis and political division that sparked it, “Millennium Approaches” is a tour de force — both respected and given a fittingly cerebral freshness in this production.
Part two of “Angels,” subtitled “Perestroika,” exceeds part one in length and proceeds even further beyond realism. The abrupt ending of “Millennium Approaches,” with Prior’s health responding to experimental treatment, makes one eager to learn his fate and that of the other characters. Though Arena has not announced plans to produce “Perestroika,” a free, one-night-only reading will be held on April 17 at 7 p.m.
“Angels in America” plays at Arena Stage through April 23. For more info go here.