Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Return flight

The Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

It's been almost fifteen years since Tony Kushner's Angels in America opened in New York, and nearly two decades since it was first workshopped in L.A.; and yet, as the current revival by Boston Theatreworks proves, much of it sounds as if it could have been written yesterday - even if the ravages of AIDS are now (mostly) behind us. Perhaps this is because while the medical landscape has changed, the political one hasn't, which I note with a heavy heart. It would be nice to say that Angels is "timeless" or "prophetic," as some recent writers have claimed, but I fear Angels seems timeless simply because the times haven't changed that much; we're still stuck in Kushner's brilliantly-evoked polarizations, and the play itself reflects this strange gridlock. Indeed, while the first half, Millennium Approaches, all but longs for some new vision that could truly transform the culture, its companion piece, Perestroika, contents itself with the thought that any such revelation would somehow be a step back.

It's an odd, contrarian position for a work of art to take (Angels is one of a rare breed - the self-refuting classic), and it's hard for me to pretend that I've ever been deeply satisfied with Kushner's masterpiece. But one can be dissatisfied and still dazzled, and Angels remains, even in its current stripped-down staging, amazing. In the breadth and salience of his analysis of millennial America, Kushner has very few peers - as in no peers - and his scenes are studded (particularly in Millennium) with speeches which are, in and of themselves, indeed timeless in their mix of electrically accurate attack and rueful wisdom.

And with all due respect to the superb Mike Nichols film, these speeches should be heard live, on stage, rather than on your widescreen. They demand to be heard in an agora, a public space, as they operate as rhetoric as well as character, in much the same way that Angels is more dialectic than drama. Kushner conjures the most disparate samples of America imaginable (gay New Yorkers and Mormon Republicans), and then smashes them together - often ignoring the exigencies of time and space - to consider and re-consider them as theses and antitheses (a technique far more successful onstage than onscreen). The resulting mix of "magic realism" puts us, as more than one character puts it, at "the threshold of revelation," as it's Kushner's special genius to perceive the parallels between his opposed worlds: the Reagan administration is crawling with gays, the Mormon hero is closeted, and of course, an angel appears to the AIDS-ridden hero, Prior Walter, in a parody of Joseph Smith's famous vision. The opposite poles of the 80s - AIDS and its corresponding political plague, Reagan (one invading the immune system of the body, the other the body politic) thread through and into each other throughout Millennium Approaches in ways that still stagger us with their insight, imagination and sympathy.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder drops in on Tyler Reilly as Millennium Approaches.

But alas, in Perestroika, the dialectic ends not with synthesis but refutation. From the opening moments - in which "the world's oldest Bolshevik" derides us for our lack of a guiding cultural vision - we can sense that Kushner is backing away from the closing challenge of Millennium ("The Great Work begins!"), and though he toys with "restructuring" his Mormon hero and his consort, the "logorrheic" Louis (an obvious self-portrait), by his finale little of the promised "great work" seems to have been accomplished. The gay Mormon has been told off and banished from the play, and his wife has vanished into the ozone, literally - only his mother has been integrated (for reasons never quite made clear) into the circle of politically chatty Cathys Kushner assembles around the Bethesda fountain (at top) in his final tableau. But then perhaps that's the only real angel in the play - since AZT, which couldn't save Roy Cohn but preserves Prior Walter, also came from Bethesda (headquarters of the National Institute of Health).

So it seemed, as I sat down to the new Boston Theatreworks version, that I'd never actually left Angels - everybody sounded just the same as they did in the 90s. But then I had to admit - the Clintons, like political AZT, managed to control Reaganism, but couldn't cure it. Gay men are still marginalized, the Mormons are deeper in denial than ever, the country is still riven by a falsely wholesome "conservatism" - and as a result, directors Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis have been spared the task of revising or updating this play. This is, essentially, the original production - writ a bit smaller, with a slightly grittier edge, but with no surprising new insights or angles. Still, a quite solid cast generally keeps it afloat; even if, as the text loses focus in Perestroika, the production meanders more obviously than the New York original years ago, it's still a highly accomplished, and often deeply moving, version.

It also features, alas, a slightly uneven ensemble; the production essentially depends on three central, sterling performances: Bree Elrod's darkly haunted Harper, Tyler Reilly's wry Prior Walter, and especially Maurice Parent's bitchily regal Belize (at left, with Richard McElvain). This trio is ably abetted by Christopher Webb, who's perhaps a shade too dark as Louis (but who nails Kushner's politically-correct conversational convolutions) and Richard McElvain, who makes a sad serpent of Roy Cohn, but lacks the old dragon's requisite fire. Meanwhile Susanne Nitter brings an intriguing air of acidic bemusement to Ethel Rosenberg, but doesn't really find a center to the (underwritten) role of Mother Pitt, while Sean Hopkins is too often an attractive blank as her (overwritten, but underdeveloped) gay son. Still, as a whole the cast can claim to have successfully wrestled Angels to the boards - as can Boston Theatreworks.

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