Monday, December 06, 2010

THEATER: Angels in America

Photo/Joan Marcus

Threshold of revelation, guys: Angels in America is one of the most over-hyped plays I've ever seen. Irresponsibly long and cripplingly ludicrous, I'm thoroughly convinced that if not for the novelty of the "epic" form coming in the midst of a dark time (1990), to say nothing of the light shed on those living with AIDS ("We will die silent deaths no longer"), Tony Kushner's script might have gotten the paring down it needed. Instead, it remains a gelatinous mush-up of three different (and slightly overlapping) plays, a set in which the only good one is entirely too preachy and chock full o' angels with a penchant for the obvious: suffering is a part of life; it is not the end of it. The flimsiness of Signature's revival -- it feels as if an eighty-person dinner party is being hosted in a studio apartment -- can only be blamed for so much, though you can feel free to lay more blame at the feet of Zoe Kazan, who treats Harper Pitt as an acting exercise.

For all that frustration, Angels in America isn't a bad play, nor is this production unwatchable, thanks to people like Christian Borle, an A-level actor who humanizes Prior Walter's insufferable pathos, captures the hilarity of the angel intrusions, and demonstrates both the unmanageable and manageable poles of life with AIDS. Though Kushner forces Prior to hash out the same accusatory conversation with his boyfriend Louis (Zachary Quinto), who has abandoned him out of fear, Borle manages to find new notes each time, as does Belize (Billy Porter), a sassy drag-queen-turned-night-nurse who, although forced to listen to highbrow rants from Louis and to have redundant conversations with Prior, peppers his own rebuttals with adequate spice. But at the same time, this is the good play: repetitive, whiny, preachy.

The other two major segments should hope for as much: Roy Cohn is a Scrooge-like lawyer who is visited by the ghosts of the people he has wronged in the past, and to his end, he remains an unrepentant bastard, a representation of pure evil: the secret gay who works to destroy gay rights. Frank Wood doesn't find an ounce of nuance with which to present the guy, and the nasally, spittle-flecked accent he chooses for the role is often distracting. Kushner, and director Michael Grief, by extension, treat him like a human pinata, except one who is filled with bile instead of candy: the worse he gets, the nastier he grows. As for Harper Pitt, she's really nothing more than a hallucinating, Valium-popping agoraphobe: it's a thankless, unresolved part that Kushner seems unclear on, glossing over her Mormon beliefs and heartbroken feelings toward her husband, Joe Pitt (Bill Heck). She doesn't come of age here; she just wanders off and isn't pursued. As for Joe, Heck's fine when he escapes the orbit of his play and that of Roy's (he is Roy's chief clerk), and provides one of the few fully developed characters -- a religiously closeted man who begins to open up, to take what he wants, after falling for Louis. And yet, though his mother, Hannah (Robin Bartlett), shows up in the epilogue, he is nowhere to be seen, so perhaps he wasn't that important after all.

Angels in America is littered with soapboxes and straw men, and for all Kushner's lauded genius, it's about as subtle as a thorn in your side. Twenty years later, there are still some uplifting moments, but the six-plus-hour length is unearned, the drama is cheap (it plays on deep emotions the audience is likely to already carry), and the Millennium feels passed by.


Mother of Invention Acting School said...

I agree. This play is a joke. Kushner is a pretentious show-off. I walked out of Angels in America on Broadway.

E. Hunter Spreen said...

This is a great review.

I've always felt that AIA was very much part of its time and context. The productions I've seen in SF - the Roy Cohn/McCarthy/Cold War hysteria scenes were some of the better scenes (and seemed to be the ones that might hold up to time) Granted I haven't read it in about 10 years. I might not feel that way now.

We also take for granted some of the epic/visual dynamics that at the time seemed extraordinary and which now seem very commonplace.

Aaron Riccio said...

I guess my largest problem with the show, now that I've read some of the other reviews, is that it is treated like some holier-than-thou artifact, and in all honesty, I'd rather see Rent again. Most of the critics give caveats that they are willing to forgive the flaws, as all great art is flawed (which isn't really true), but they don't adequately explain what makes it great art in the first place.

The play is a whirlwind of ideas, and too many of the critics seem to have been sucked blindly into it, rather than to have stood from afar and noted the various threads that don't add up, that don't transport. (It's no surprise that Prior quotes "The Wizard of Oz.") With distance, after all, comes perspective, and this is one of the rare cases that I'm glad I was too young to have seen (well, to have seen and understood) the original production.