For many theatergoers this season’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Pareoistrika, now playing in repertory in a limited engagement at the Neil Simon Theatre, can seem like a veritable theatrical marathon. The two shows, which run for a total of 7.5 hours and can be seen in either one full day or split between two, takes about as much time as it does to fly to Europe or binge-watch an entire mini-series. Though much like a European vacation or a deep dive into a new series, the productions are well worth the time - and will in fact leave you wanting more. The revival, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the two-time Tony Award winning Best Play (one for each part) could not have come at a better time as it not only unusually topical, but also exposes a new generation to a landmarked script.
Catapulting straight from London’s National Theatre after a celebrated run, Angels in America hits Broadway in a season where many revivals have taken heat. In a February 2018 New York Times article entitled, “The Problem With Broadway Revivals: They Revive Gender Stereotypes, Too,” Michael Paulson highlights the issues revivals such as Carousel, Kiss Me Kate and My Fair Lady face, all having female leads who become almost subservient to their male counterparts. Not only do they not play well in the #metoo era, Paulson also points out that each of the productions are directed by men. By contrast, Angels in America is a play (or “Gay Fantasia” as its full title defines it) and is helmed masterfully by a female director, Marianne Elliott, two-time Tony Award winner for War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And while much has changed since its debut in 1993, most notably in the progress made in the AIDS crisis, the decades-old revival soars in today’s fiery political and social climate. Author Tony Kushner credits its renewed relevance to our Republican-led government, telling Variety, “I think my work is always at its best during Republican administrations.” The Reagan-era setting of Angels in America echos today’s political temperature in everything from immigration, religious freedoms, climate change to public policy. There is even a little “Russia” in there, the title Peroistrika hailing from a Communist movement within the USSR. Much of the conflict is based in politics and power and that is where Kushner’s text thrives. While the majority of the characters are left-leaning (or end up there), on the right you have the dramatized version of real-life Roy Cohn, played by Broadway veteran Nathan Lane. In a step outside of his typical musical comedy roles, Lane’s steller depiction of Cohn is as unsettling as it is breathtaking. Adding a layer of ironic relevance is the fact that real-life Cohn was a mentor of a young Donald Trump, even representing him in lawsuits in his early development days after his organization was accused (and later settled without admitting guilt) of violating Fair Housing practices and discriminating to prospective minority tenants.
As far as the performances go, it is tough for an actor to compete with the iconic, star-studded small screen performances cemented in the minds of many fans who followed the epic play’s well-awarded 2003 HBO mini-series (Pacino, Streep), but this cast holds its own. Lane as Cohn is as epic and unfiltered as the play itself. Andrew Garfield’s Prior is dynamic, humorous and heartbreaking, which compliments James McArdle’s sardonic and self-hating portrayal of Louis (a character modeled after the author) whose verbose speeches - both brilliantly written and performed - do remind us this play is a comedy. British actress Denise Gough, who plays Harper, is at her best when furious and inflamed, something New York and London audiences saw a great deal of in her last stage production, People Places and Things, also a transfer from the National Theatre to St. Ann’s Warehouse. Lee Pace, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Amanda Lawrence and Susan Brown round out the remainder of the terrific speaking roles and an honorable mention goes to the puppetry work (conceived by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes and comprised of multiple “shadows”) of the angel. Further contributing to the impact of the tour-de-force production is the fluid, transformative and shocking set by Ian McNeil, fierce lighting by Paule Constable, and equally exquisite Music and Sound designs by Adrian Sutton and Ian Dickinson.
Having been educated in the theatre with Angels in America as the veritable bible of modern, epic structure I was overjoyed to have finally seen the entire production in a fully realized live format. Having studied this play’s structure, place in theatrical history as well as its characters, there was a huge potential for disappointment going into the production. The opposite occurred and I was transformed, renewed and delighted by both shows. I highly recommend this limited engagement. It is worth every minute.