The second half of the Angels revival at the Signature Theatre at proved as satisfying as the first, if not more so, since the story deepens and expands as the play breathes into its ideas and its characters. I love the progress toward a renewed community in Part Two of the play, in which Kushner lets Louis reconnect with Prior and Belize, and in which he imagines that Hannah Pitt (with her chic, notably new haircut) has finally become a permanent part of the men’s lives.
In Greif’s production, as the group sits around the Bethesda fountain in Central Park and Prior delivers his beautiful benediction, Hannah holds a dog-eared copy of The Nation, further indication that she’s not only adopted this complicated city as her new home (and a far cry from Salt Lake it is), but that she’s embraced the more progressive politics of the gay men into whom she’s remade her family. It’s a nice touch, one of the many small details that grace this lovely production.
I did see Christian Borle in Part Two, after enjoying Eric Bryant’s understudy performance as Prior in Part One. Borle brought more of Stephen Spinella’s original camp-inspired energy to the role, but at the same time, enough of the more tempered thoughtfulness that I found so appealing in Bryant’s performance.
Prior and Louis (Zachary Quinto) are mostly at odds in Part Two, which Borle and Quinto play with the kind of lived-in lovers’ sparring that makes the relationship poignant and convincing, even though they’re fighting about Prior’s right to succor and Louis’s moral limitations as a care-taker and partner. Prior doesn’t allow Louis to come home, when he reconsiders his flight from Prior, but he does allow Louis to rejoin their foundational community.
Joe (Bill Heck), on the other hand, along with the blighted Roy Cohn (Frank Wood) who’s his intellectual and political mentor, is the only major male character exiled at the play’s end. His absence under the fountain in the play’s last breath seems notable in this production, partly because thanks to Heck’s terrific, nuanced performance, he’s been such a key force throughout the play. But Joe’s exile from the final tableau demonstrates Kushner’s commitment to a progressive vision of politics. Joe doesn’t reform or change his ideology, even as he accepts his queer sexuality, and for that reason, there’s no room for him in this struggling community of those eager to change not just themselves, but the world—the great work to which Kushner refers at the play’s end.
Harper (Zoe Kazan), too, moves on, in the lovely visual image Greif conceives for this production. The curtains open on her sitting atop two suitcases piled on a set of bookcases, which theatricalizes the plane on which she’s departing from New York. The choice gives Harper height and captures her new-found freedom, but also grounds her in the lives she’s leaving as she flies off to San Francisco with Joe’s credit card securely in her purse, reparations for all she’s suffered that will enable her new life. Kazan delivers her final monologue beautifully, her face open and hopeful as she comes into her own, alone, strong enough to separate from the man and the Mormon community that’s only hampered her agency.
Kushner’s major themes sound resonant in Grief’s production of Part Two: his debate about the need for theory to fuel a revolution; his insistence, despite the hard work of the Angel, that movement forward should triumph over the stasis for which she’s the mouthpiece; and the hope for renewal that can be found in the most quotidian as well as the grandest gestures and choices one makes in a life. I heard those tropes echo through various characters’ speeches and monologues in new ways in this production, and felt Kushner’s motivating faith in progress (and progressive politics) newly hopeful and invigorating.
Part Two continues with the less flashy but more effective choices Greif makes throughout his version of the play. Prior’s visit to heaven, for instance, was staged as a post-apocalyptic spectacle in the Broadway version, with characters dressed in heavy medieval robes and the rubble of history literally strewn across the stage. In Greif’s production, the prophets are played by all the characters/actors but the visiting Prior—Louis, Joe, Hannah, Harper, Belize, and even Roy, are all there, not as themselves but representing history’s messengers and arbiters, the unseen forces that would mold and shake the universe. They wear black choir robes with bright red ties and carnations pinned to their lapels. These prophets group together with clear visual affinity, staggered at various levels across the stage right set. They connect to one another physically, whether by linking hands or by placing touching a shoulder, in gestures of communion and care that make the scene both human and heightened, fluid and stolid. Rather than frightening Prior with their Old Testament vengeance, these prophets seem of him, more saddened than infuriated by his decision to opt for more life. The lovely scene puts all of the actors onstage together in a show of unity, playing the gathering forces of history as hopeful rather than vengeful.
Likewise, the Angel (Robin Weigert, who appears in Part Two in a black version of Part One’s white costume, looking a bit like Natalie Portman as the black swan in Aronofsky’s movie) rings out her prophecies on an appropriately human scale in Part Two. When she visits Prior and Hannah Pitt (Robin Bartlett) in his St. Vincent’s hospital room, the Angel flies in and lands, as Weigert pauses to allow two black-clad stage-hands to unclip her from the cables that support her flight. She walks to Prior’s bed, where Hannah now lays dreaming this visitation, and kisses Hannah softly, prompting the orgasm that lets Hannah come to believe Prior’s vision. With Weigert’s warmth emanating from the moment, and Barlett’s nicely comic reactions fueling the orgasm, the scene plays like the bestowal of a gift, rather than a thunderous, abstracted visitation from on high with sexual and ideological consequences. Change, Greif and his actors seem to suggest, can be quietly cataclysmic, prompted by the most mundane exchanges, and the simplest kiss.
When Prior steps out of the scene in the production’s last moments to address us directly, the audience and the actors are included in his benediction, in Kushner’s fervent belief in the necessity for more life, and in his wish for more great work to always improve what the future might mean.
A mostly new cast goes into the production soon for its extended run—go see it. What a lovely experience of theatre.
The Feminist Spectator