I’d heard mixed things about this production, since people had such strong attachments to the original Broadway version directed by George C. Wolfe, starring Stephen Spinella as Prior and Joe Mantello as Louis, Marcia Gay Harden as Harper and Ron Liebman as Roy Cohn, with Ellen McLaughlin and Kathleen Chalfant and Jeffrey Wright in all the other key roles. In 1993, it felt life-altering to see a gay play (and an overtly Jewish play) in a Broadway theatre, cast as spectacle with no apology for how it represented gay men as the center of the universe in conversation with all the big themes of American democracy.
I remember watching Part One: Millennium Approaches, from the balcony of the Walter Kerr Theatre, thrilled as the acts flew by and stunned when the Angel came crashing through Prior’s ceiling at Part One’s end, with his campy “Very Stephen Spielberg” response ending the evening. I felt like I’d witnessed history being made, and participated in the very same cracking open of time that Kushner goes on to address more overtly in the second part of his epic play.
Michael Greif’s production for Signature Theatre represents the first major revival of Kushner’s play since its Broadway debut. So much has changed in America since 1993, when it opened, and since 1985-86, when the play is set. Even though the left press is accusing Obama of returning to 80s-style Reaganomics with his recent compromise on taxes, we’re a long way from Reagan’s America in 2010. Although the political scene he draws, and Kushner’s incisive critique of democracy, still resonate, the sense of outsiderness that each of the play’s characters evokes has changed dramatically, if not completely.
And yet this production doesn’t quite present Angels as a history lesson, which I think (I’m not sure) is to its credit. That is, the production doesn’t seem particularly set in the 1980s—the costumes seem contemporary, with the exception of the occasional cut of a suit jacket or a particular pair of shoes. This production is full of detail, with each setting crammed with stuff, where the Broadway version was more abstracted and seemed to take place in nearly empty space. But at the Signature, the furniture and the sets are also not necessarily specific to the 1980s, a choice perhaps made to ensure the play’s relevance as we move into the second decade of the new millennium.
Perhaps most jarringly, the actors’ bodies are clearly contemporary. I recall Spinella playing Prior in the ‘90s, and how the audience gasped in unison when he took off his clothes for the scene in which he’s examined by a nurse in the hospital. Spinella was rail thin and his body was covered with prosthetic Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. His portrayal of a man afflicted with advanced stage HIV/AIDS was almost too convincing, and spectators murmured openly with concern not just for Prior’s health, but for the well-being of the actor who played him.
By contrast, Eric Bryant, whom I saw play Prior at the December 24, 2010, performance (he understudied for Christian Borle), looked like the picture of health. His body is muscled and lithe, covered with a reasonable layer of healthy pink flesh that made the fake KS lesions seem too much like the pasted-on representations that they are. Although dark circles were drawn under Bryant’s eyes to make him look ill, believing that he had HIV/AIDS was a stretch, despite convincing performances of cramping and pain that he played scrawled on the stage floor. (Incidentally, I heard the same comments about Borle’s body from friends and colleagues who saw his performance.)
Angels was written well before the protease inhibitor cocktails that have extended the lives of people with HIV/AIDS and even, some say, made it a chronic rather than a fatal disease. Perhaps this 2010 representation of Prior is true to what people with HIV look like now. Perhaps asking the actor to lose 25 pounds to play the role would throw the production into a period verisimilitude that Greif seems to have wanted to avoid. But the choice means something about how HIV/AIDS is represented in 2010, and says something about what the pandemic means now, too. If it’s more difficult to see Prior as doomed in this production, how does Kushner’s play change?
Since Angels was the first Broadway play to take seriously the cost of the AIDS pandemic for gay male communities (Larry Kramer’s earlier, important play The Normal Heart played Off Broadway), the changed status of the disease (at least for those who can afford the life-prolonging treatment) shifts the play’s urgency. (For a terrific history of the representation of the pandemic in American theatre, I highly recommend my friend David Román’s book, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS.)
Likewise, in a political moment in which the president just signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and when at least in some states in the U.S. and in countries around the world, gay men and lesbians can, if they wish, get married, the status of queer people as an underclass has changed from what it was when the Broadway production of Angels premiered. The play was already a history, even as it made history—that is, it was set six years before the time of its production. Now, we’re nearly 30 years past the dark days of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and St. Vincent’s Hospital, where so many of those who suffered from the disease in Manhattan went for treatment, has long since been closed.
So what does Angels mean now? Is it just a history lesson for those who weren’t there for one of the most traumatic moments in American politics and culture? Is it a trip into nostalgia of a peculiar kind for those of us who were there? And what of the play’s other themes, its attention to Jewishness, to democracy, to community, and to renewal? When I teach the play now—in courses on American drama, queer theatre, and most recently, Jewish identity and performance—I’m invariably moved by Kushner’s fervor for something better, by his acute intelligence, his inventive theatricality, his ability to interweave so many lives and experiences and come out at the end with a new idea of faith and family that his characters actually try to practice. And I’m moved by the memory of how galvanized I was by what was in the early ‘90s his bold take on gay themes and characters.
Seeing the Signature production, I felt as moved as I am when I reread the play. Greif’s provides a more intimate experience than Wolfe’s. The Signature’s Peter Norton Theatre is small, wide but not that deep, and Greif’s staging uses the extended proscenium to the play’s advantage by setting simultaneous scenes side-by-side and using the apron for transitional moments and “traveling.” Where the Broadway version saw the characters crossing the stage in wide arcs to tease out their interrelationships across the space, the Signature version uses interlocking sets moved about by unconcealed stage-hands that wheel into and away from one another.
I liked this choice more, as it came to represent, as Part One proceeded, the continuum of time and space that preoccupies Kushner, as the sets move together, break apart, swirl around, and return to their place, changed. Even the accumulation of detail in each set—the unpacked boxes in Harper and Joe Pitt’s Brooklyn apartment; the bookcases in Prior and Louis’s place, sharing a wall with Harper and Joe’s; the café where Louis and Belize talk (or where Louis talks and Belize listens), decorated with realistic cups and counters—all of this seemed to evoke the messy chaos of complicated lives as they spiral together and bounce apart. The production feels rooted in quotidian detail, which doesn’t detract from its philosophizing so much as ground it more concretely in the progress of our common lives.
The casting in this production also brings a whole new aspect to the work. Zachary Quinto, as Louis, provides a much more centered eye to this version of the play’s storm. Louis’s neuroses are tamped down in Quinto’s quieter, less flamboyant performance, and he seems to think through his words, instead of just letting them tumble out as Mantello did in the original. As a result, Louis seems a more careful, reflective character, which makes his inability to stick by Prior as he falls ill that much more painful.
Louis’s coffee shop scene with Belize (Billy Porter) retains much of its grim hilarity, as Louis’s political insights pour out alongside the racial insensitivities on which Porter comments by raising his eyebrows with alarm and incredulity. But the scene also demonstrates how hard Louis works intellectually, if not emotionally, to come up with an analysis that lets him move through a very complex life. In Quinto’s hands, Louis is much more empathetic, which gives the play a new emotional resonance.
Porter, in the difficult role of the only person of color in Kushner’s play, presents Belize, too, as grounded in his post-drag queen seriousness and his lingering, cutting campiness. Porter plays Belize less flamboyantly than Jeffrey Wright’s original performance, which brings the character more depth and helps make his outsiderness more poignant.
Bill Heck plays Joe Pitt with moving intensity. He’s slightly less of a pretty face than, for instance, Patrick Wilson, who played the role in Mike Nichol’s 2003 HBO film version of Angels, which somehow makes his own struggles with his sexuality, his fealty to his wife and his religion, and his conservative politics that much more persuasive and compelling. His physical revulsion for Harper (Zoe Kazan) reads palpably here, along with the queer desire he can’t tame or name.
Kazan, as Harper, brings new shadings to the role of the woman driven mad by her husband’s lies. Harper’s scenes draw out much of Kushner’s more theatrical, fantastical imaginings, and Kazan plays them with a thoughtful probity missing from Marcia Gay Harden’s Broadway original or from Mary Louise Parker’s HBO performance in the role. Kazan is a slight young woman with an appealing, round, open face. Heck, as Joe, towers over her, a physical demonstration of their power differential. But Kazan’s thoughtfulness gives her more power than most Harpers I’ve seen—she doesn’t fold as easily in the face of Joe’s cruelty and dissembling.
Greif’s staging allows Harper’s and Prior’s scenes to actually intermingle on the small Signature stage. Where Wolfe had the two characters meet in the middle of what felt like a vast, abstracted Broadway proscenium to play out their fantastical encounters, Greif moves Harper into Prior’s apartment and hospital room as their parallel scenes proceed. Although the choice might be less theatrical and spectacular than Wolfe’s broader staging, these scenes become more intimate and human in Greif’s conception of the play.
Harper and Prior don’t seem quite as unhinged, their visions less mad than melancholy and poignant. They see one another as soul mates in their mutual loss and uncertainty, and perform their brief encounters with mutual admiration and affection. Greif’s direction might not emphasize the pageantry or “fantasia” of Kushner’s play the way Wolfe’s did, but I found myself quite moved by the more quotidian-scale interactions among the characters. It’s almost as if Wolfe directed the original Angels as a big, presentational Broadway musical, while Greif directs it as a canonical straight play.
Bryant, standing in for Borle at the performance I saw, was wonderful as Prior. Although he’s a specimen of perfect health, and not quite convincing as a young man dying of HIV/AIDS, Bryant dignified Prior’s vulnerable neediness and brought a sweetness to his portrayal that made Prior less a campy queen than a sad, sometimes angry, more whimsical gay man muddling through the hand he’s dealt.
History’s revolutions since the play’s Broadway debut in 1993 seem most obvious with this new Prior. When Part One rings down with the Angel of History breaking through the ceiling of his apartment to announce that the great work begins, Prior famously exclaims, “Very Stephen Spielberg.” Spinella played this remark in the original production as high camp, but Bryant delivers it with a kind of wonder, a shift in tone that seems to signal the wholesale difference of 2010 from 1993. Camp and irony as a response to the cataclysmic HIV/AIDS pandemic don’t read the same way now as they did then.
The campy spectacle of the whole play, in fact, is toned down in Greif’s production, which seems to me a sensible reinterpretation for a new age. Even the Angel (Robin Weigert) is more human here than the abstracted, mythic figure portrayed by Ellen McLaughlin on Broadway. What seems to be an inherent goodness and warmth emanates from Weigert’s face as the Angel. Rather than a frightening godhead determined to stop the flow of time, this Angel seems a happily revivifying visitor, a good fairy rather than an evil harbinger of pending doom.
The wires on which Weigert flies in are obvious in Greif’s production. The Angel moves on a pulley system nearly to the lip of the apron, rather than floating in the upstage right corner of the scene where Wolfe put McLaughlin. She’s less remote, as a result, and more alive, less foreboding and more entrancing. (On this, for one of the first times ever, I seem to agree with Ben Brantley, in his October 28, 2010, New York Times review of the production.) I don’t know what this shift will mean for Part Two: Petestroika, but I’m eager to see.
Robin Bartlett, as the formidable Hannah Pitt, is off to a good start in Part One, although it’s difficult to erase the memory of the wonderful Kathleen Chalfant in the ensemble of roles Bartlett now assumes. Frank Wood, as Roy Cohn, brings perhaps the most captivating change of tone to his role, playing Cohn as a slithering snake, running his tongue constantly across his lips between the very wet deliveries of his lines. Cohn’s predatory sexuality reads very clearly in Wood’s performance, but his Jewishness—which seems highlighted by Wood’s choices—is repulsive in newly unsettling ways.
By contrast, Quinto, as Louis, barely reads as Jewish at all. Toning down the character’s neuroses, and with it, his excessive hand gestures and speech patterns, Quinto loses some of Louis’s motivating ethnicity. As a result, this version of Angels, so far, seems more about assimilation than about difference—Jewish or gay male or, so far, Mormon, for that matter. I’m not sure that’s the wrong choice for the play, in 2010, as in what I’ve seen already, the production speaks to something more humanist and universal than it did in 1993, when representing gay and Jewish difference on Broadway so complexly seemed like such an historical triumph.
But I’m only halfway through this revival of Angels in America. I see Part Two: Perestroika at the end of this week, and will report back on the grand finale. But I left Part One: Millennium Approaches moved and fed, buoyed by Kushner’s enduring text and by Greif’s intelligent, intimate production.
The Feminist Spectator