Fathom Events' "Angels in America": The Great Work Continues

James McArdle & Andrew Garfield in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)
Difficult to believe as it is, it has been twenty-five years since playwright Tony Kushner wrote his earthshaking Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes. With its eclectic mix of the political and the mythical, featuring some highly original characters as well as some historical figures, its impression and impact on contemporary theater then and now remains an indictment of cynicism and hypocrisy. It, sadly, not only seems as relevant to today's American scene but in fact more relevant than ever. While the original work was written as a response to the faults of Reaganism, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, we as a nation are still far from ideal; in fact, there is much more reason to protest and resist. Thus it should come as no surprise that London's National Theater should have chosen to remount the work, with a truly stellar cast and technical crew, directed by Marianne Elliott, which turned out to be a testament to both the original productions in May 1993 and November 1993, and their subsequent television miniseries version in 2003.

Nathan Lane in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)

Kushner originally planned to produce the two parts of his masterwork in repertory, but the second part was delayed by a season, enabling him to win the Tony Award for Best Play twice in successive years, for both of the parts, in addition to many other accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. Part One: Millennium Approaches, was, in a term the author himself used frequently, a threshold of revelation. The story line (or rather story lines) for both parts centers around two men suffering from AIDS, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield, whose prior work as the hero of Spiderman and Hacksaw Ridge gave mere glimmers of promise) and Senator Joe McCarthy's right hand man Roy Cohn (the usually droll Nathan Lane in a ferocious departure from such roles as in The Producers and the like), and the reactions to their common disease from those around them, notably Prior's lover Louis (a boyishly endearing James McArdle), nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Mormon Joe Pitt (a convincingly conflicted Russell Tovey), Joe's wife Harper (the stunning Denise Gough) and mother (the versatile Susan Brown). And, of course, the first of many angelic presences (Amanda Lawrence). It's a cosmic melting pot with fundamentally political ends, as when a cynical Justice Department flackman Martin Heller (also played by Gough) declaims the “end of liberalism, the end of the New Deal socialism, the dawning of a genuinely American political personality”. Even Kushner couldn't have anticipated how prescient his vision was. Prior, through AIDS, perceives the absurdity of the world, while Cohn, ironically an anti-Semite Jew and homophobic gay man, sees the reality as a joke. Except the joke's on him, and it isn't funny.

Part Two: Perestroika (which you will recall means a “thaw”), is longer, more verbose, more populated by celestial beings. It's also harder to follow, at least on stage, without benefit of the published play with its helpful stage directions. His characters increasingly talk over one another (a device he later perfected in his The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures). Suffice it to say that Kusher delves much more deeply into the realm of the mystical, with significantly increased roles for his supporting cast, notably Belize (who wasn't even named in the first part), Ethel Rosenberg (Brown again) and the weirdest of his cast, Harper's imaginary friend Mr. Lies (Stewart-Jarrett again), of the International Order of Travel Agents. It's a far funnier and more whimsical play than the first part, more poetic and less accessible at the same time. We are shown a Prior who is now ready to undertake his role in the Great Work that is to come. He interacts with Harper (both of them left by their loved ones) in looking into the past in order to ascertain America's answer for the future. Prior is ready for the chance for “more life” which was denied the more cynical Cohn; he has hope “to be around (for summer) to see it (Central Park's Bethesda fountain). I plan to be...This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all...We are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore...We will be citizens. The time has come...And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” And so it has come to pass, that declarations that Marx and God are dead were quite possibly premature. As the comic strip character Pogo once put it, “God isn't dead; he's just unemployed”.

And yet the tiniest tinge of terror persists, with the knowledge that, for a period of a decade or so, Roy Cohn was a legal advisor to one Donald J. Trump.


Andrew Garfield in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)


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