(photos by Michael Brosilow)
There are two attributes of playwright Tony Kushner’s seminal work, Angels in America, that absolutely demand equal attention: the epic and the intimate. A pseudo-Brechtian approach to the gay experience of nineteen eighties New York City, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika tackle the plague-sized AIDS epidemic, Mormonism, and politics with voluminous thematic devise and luscious poetry of the mouth and eyes. Yet, just as crucial are the condensed, touching, and textured relationships. That’s the majesty of Kushner’s opus – the marriage of the epic and real, as AIDS itself, was, and is, both horrifically epic and all too real.
Director Charles Newell’s new production of both parts of Angels in America, presented in repertory at Court Theatre, intermittently grabs hold of the play’s central dichotomy to thrilling effect, but its ability to do so is greatly stunted by indecisive staging and a far too fussy and polished environment. Still, there is much to admire about this new revival, which is acted capably by all, and transcendently by some.
In producing a play like Angels in America, this theatre’s home-Court advantage is its relative coziness. Angels in America is a conceptually grandiose play, having even been adapted into an opera. But a large portion of that size and scope comes from the fury of a private argument, alone in a room with another person. On Broadway, the private must be achieved through design choices and elaborate architectural adjustments. But at Court, a tiny trust tucked away in Hyde Park, privacy is streaming through its blood.
Mystifyingly, Court fights against their compactness with aggressive, ice-cold scenic design. The set of Angels (John Culbert), physically the same in both parts of the marathon with only a few subtle expansions, presents a number of unnecessary hurdles for the actors and for the audience.
Centered around a mid-stage bed, which looks as concrete and fashionably geometric as an IKEA, the upstage is a grid of metallic squares. Those squares are utilized in plethora of ways, often giving no acknowledgment their spatial separation. But more than a few times, a character occupies one square as their scene partner occupies another, creating a tête á tête of power while whittling away at tension and pressure. A smart idea, in theory, but it drenches those scenes in intellect, drowning their emotional prowess.
Although the scenic design is a significant misstep, breathtaking rain and snow effects are magical and impressive, and Keith Parham’s sizzling lighting design continues Court’s Harlequin romance with the oversized light bulb. But this Angels in America belongs to its actors who mostly rise to Kushner’s challenge.
As Prior Walter, a gay man infected with AIDS who is left early on in the play by his boyfriend, Louis, Rob Lindley is most effective in his moments of humor. Lindley can rattle off a sassy quip with the best of ‘em, but he leaves much to be desired in more dramatic areas. He colors serious scenes with a consistent vocal frailty that undermines Prior’s unflappable spirit.
An unsung hero of Court’s Angels in America is its Louis, a refreshingly generous Eddie Bennett. There is little doubt in my mind that Larry Yando as Roy Cohn is giving the performance of a lifetime, transforming into a being simultaneously corrupt, diseased, and handsomely alluring; however it is very much his performance. Yando thrives in Cohn’s personal moments of introspect - his monologues and his physical distresses – but he lags somewhat in his exchanges with other characters. The tight, burning intimacy that Angels in America desperately craves for resides in those glorious sections.
After several hours of viewing, a trend revealed itself to me, not unlike Prior and his holy book. All the scenes of untamable heat and heart involved Bennett, even when he was not the sole focus. How very telling! Allowing the focus to fall on a person other than yourself is a more nuanced skill than greedily harnessing the limelight, and in a play with an almost overwhelming number of focuses, it’s an integral skill.
A collection of parts - Hannah Pitt, the Oldest Living Bolshevik, Ethel Rosenberg, and several more - is played with fantastical transformation by Hollis Resnik. Resnik’s first appearance as the executed Ethel Rosenberg - poised, steady, and with a knowing grin – is, perhaps, the most heart-pumping moment of Perestroika, which, at Court, is the better of the two plays.
As Harper and Joe Pitt, a couple dealing with a husband’s homosexuality amidst devoted Mormonism and a wife’s drug addiction, Heidi Kettenring and Geoff Packard have a surprisingly relatable normalcy about them. Packard, in particular, is a very kind Joe, and a man that you instantly want the best possible future for. Kettenring, while occasionally falling into an elongated drone, is, too, a Harper you want to hug.
Mary Beth Fisher’s Angel is very, very relaxed, which is the river’s mouth of my confusion towards this production. Why would a married couple’s argument tonally harken back to K2, while The Angel is straight out of Proof? Newell has staged her intrusion into Prior’s apartment in two ways throughout the marathon. One employs a slow, ritualistic exercise of attaching the flight cables to the actress, which appears nothing other than cheap and awkward. More effectively, he has the lights black out, and when they re-illuminate, she is hovering above the bed. Regardless, Fisher’s voice does not convey the authority of The Angel and her physicality is living room casual.
Despite its shortcomings, Court’s production of Angels in America has left a reflective, lingering aftertaste on my theatregoing palate. I took in Perestroika a whole week before I saw Millennium Approaches. Yes, out of order and a week apart. But the poignancy of the production and of the play itself continues to strike me. That is a testament to the enduring strength and unrestrained power of Kushner’s text, and to the expressiveness of this ensemble. Opportunities to experience capable actors performing one of the true stage masterpieces of late twentieth century are rare, and this production is one of those opportunities.-Johnny Oleksinski
'Angels in America: Millennium Approaches & Perestroika' by Tony Kushner runs through June 3 at Court Theatre.