In 1991, San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company premiered a new work by American playwright Tony Kushner. Entitled Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches, the play examined the interconnecting lives of several New Yorkers during the mid-1980s, as the homophobic Reagan administration dragged its feet in addressing the AIDS crisis.
The well-received three-act play was complex, surreal, and epic. Across 3.5 hours, Kushner introduced us to the neurotic Louis Ironson and his partner, HIV-positive Prior Walter; closeted lawyer Joe Pitt, his Valium-addicted wife Harper, and his uptight Mormon mother Hannah; a semi-fictionalized version of infamous attorney Roy Cohn, who served as Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Red Scare and–ironically–the Lavender Scare, and later became a personal adviser to Donald Trump; a sassy night nurse named Belize; and play’s namesake Angel.
In Part One: Millennium Approaches, Kushner carefully arranges and racks a series of billiard balls. In 1992, he premiered Part Two: Perestroika, in which he shoots a cue ball directly into the delicately arranged characters. During this 4.5 hour companion piece, solids and stripes split apart, ricocheting off one another and the borders around them until everyone settles safely in their pockets at the show’s end.
Each of the plays earned Kushner a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play.
Both parts of Angels in America have been revived in repertory by the National Theatre in London and are playing at the Lyttelton Theatre. Fathom Events decided to film a performance live and broadcast it to cinemas around the United States as a special engagement. Fathom, based in Colorado, continues to make a name for itself by streaming live theatre into cinemas in addition to special screenings of classic films and live RiffTrax events.
Fathom Events continue to quench the thirst of theatre geeks that cannot afford to skip off to New York or London all willy-nilly. While routine broadcasts of The Met: Live in HD is valuable and appreciated, screenings of Broadway smashes like Newsies: The Musical are going to keep the company in business.
In general, straight plays–that is, non-musicals–do not make for energetic popcorn munching. Angels in America, with its lengthy monologues on crowd-pleasing topics such as leftist politics and Jewish theology, weep-your-eyes-out deaths, and an 8-hour total running time does not seem like the ideal night at the movies.
But hardcore fans of the play, like myself, enthusiastically filled the Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill to enter Kushner’s universe on July 20th and 22nd.
On the night of Part One: Millennium Approaches, we ordered meals from our cozy seats, munched candy and popcorn, gushed about Meryl Streep, and sucked down Cherry Coke or Chardonnay. The sold-out room was a hive of anticipation. “I saw the New York production in 1991” person one says. “I also sleep with Mormons,” says another.
I saw an inspiring cocktail of teen drama geeks, thirtysomething theatre literati, and many of the older queer men who survived the very plague Kushner wrote about.
The buzz was shot to hell when Dr. Gregory Kable, associate dramaturg at Playmakers Repertory Company, spent 25 minutes explaining his reading of Angels in America and how we, the audience, should think about it, particularly in regard to the work of Bertolt Brecht. Insightful? Yes. Appropriately timed? Sadly, no. The unannounced guest lecture annihilated the cheery mood in the room and some audience members actually began trying to shout him down as he talked over the film’s taped introduction.
By contrast, the audience of Part Two: Perestroika, one week later, was treated to an intermission visit by Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of Playmakers Repertory Company, who shared a few humorous anecdotes about her early work on the original Angels workshops. Did this enhance the evening? Yes. Was it appropriately timed? Yes.
Once Millennium Approaches was finally underway, we noticed immediately that the audio was about 0.5 seconds behind the picture. This may not seem like a long time, but it is catastrophic to an audience’s experience of an actor’s performance. For 3.5 hours, the actors appeared dubbed. Had I not committed to review the piece, I would have left. Several complaining audience members managed to secure free tickets for the entire crowd.
Surprisingly, the glitch was just as present for Perestroika. It is not clear whether the blame lay with National Theatre Live, Fathom Events, or Silverspot Cinema, but the error was surely caught during pre-screening checks at the cinema and there should have been a postponement.
I began to worry early on, thanks to some missteps from the National Theatre production itself. Nathan Lane’s opening scene as Roy Cohn was surprisingly low-energy. He grew better as the play progressed–favoring a simmering, conniving politician over a bombastic one. By Perestroika, he was in Full Cohn, raging against the world while managing to elicit a tinge of sympathy.
Denise Gough’s entrance as Harper Pitt was a welcome one. She finds the humor and humanity in a character that can often be played as delusional or simply “nuts.” In this production, Gough makes Harper the heroine–the play’s strongest survivor–and she only gets better as we near the climax.
Susan Brown differentiates her roles fairly strongly–the elderly rabbi, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, the New York doctor, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and the stuffy Mormon mother-in-law. Each is fully developed and never over-played.
For an actor, the character of Belize is a booby trap set by Kushner. The night nurse could easily be a campy RuPaul’s Drag Race reject who struts about throwing shade. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett ably avoided the trap and crafted a charming, endearing, and down-to-earth performance.
The same cannot be said for Andrew Garfield, who plays Prior Walter with every Gay Cliche he could possibly find. He has some very impressive emotional moments in the play and proves himself to be a competent actor. However, the grotesque Judy Garland in Her Last Days routine wears out its welcome long before the end of Millennium Approaches. Half the blame goes to Garfield for the lisping, limp-wristed minstrel show. Half goes to director Marianne Elliott for allowing–or encouraging–it.
Amanda Lawrence gave the production’s most outstanding performance, as the Angel/Nurse/Realtor/Homeless Woman combo, which she serves with a mixture of fortitude and empathy. While Lawrence provided the core physical and verbal performance of the Angel, Finn Caldwell, puppet director for the National Theatre’s 2007 production of War Horse, used a small company of masterful puppeteers to bring the creature fully to life. The invisible team, cloaked in darkness, contorted her enormous white wings–made of old bleached bones–and danced acrobatically across the stage carrying her aloft as though she weighed no more than a feather.
Roy Cohn may be the play’s villain, but he experiences no guilt. Louis Ironson, on the other hand, bathes in Jewish Guilt after he abandons his sick lover, Prior. James McArdle takes the pitiful, but ultimately redeemed Louis and makes him a sniveling, cantankerous man-child that I wish would abandon the play. By the second half of Perestroika, McArdle becomes more tolerable, but he cannot save six hours of fake crying and hand-wringing.
Russell Tovey, best known for the National Theatre’s 2004 premiere of The History Boys, plays the adorably naive Mormon Joe Pitt. Tovey captures Joe’s discomfort with his environment, and his dedication to the despicable Roy feels genuine. He excels in the calmer scenes, like those with Harper, but does not have the maturity to carry the heavier emotional material.
Dialect Coach Hazel Holder has done a fine job with her cast. Every character sounds wholly American, though Lane is the sole actor from the States. I noticed the frequent appearance of the intrusive British R (think of Oasis’s “champagne supernova-r-in the sky”), but this is a minor detail.
Sound Designer Adrian Sutton’s work is difficult to appreciate from 3800 miles away, but the enormous scope of the sound effects and score is undeniable and his actors are well-amplified. Whenever the bass effects kicks into the cinema, however, those voices are lost for several seconds.
Costume designer Nicky Gillibrand ably dresses a multitude of characters: lawyers, doctors, drag queens, angels, farmers, aristocrats, and animatronic pioneers. The 13th and 17th century are both addressed, as well as four decades of the 20th.
Tony Award-winning lighting designer Paule Constable outlines the Millennium Approaches set with the bright neon tubes associated with 1980s pop music videos, while adding sharp boundaries to Perestroika’s unwalled sets and high-concept drama to the Heaven sequence.
Set Designer Ian MacNeil faced a challenge, which he both met and did not meet. Millennium Approaches is a play that contains its characters. They are confined to the worlds they have built themselves. Therefore, MacNeil chose to keep them on small, rotating, interlocking stages. While it is effective in communicating a sense of closeness and imprisonment, the slowly-turning platforms become tedious long before act three of Millennium Approaches.
Perestroika, however, is an open play. The characters are set loose into the world to ricochet off one another like so many billiard balls. The expansion of their universe requires an expansion of the set–an entirely different one from Millennium Approaches. The rotating platforms are pulled upstage and the entire space is now MacNeil’s for the taking.
Caldwell’s black-clad puppeteers skate across the stage with rolling furniture and doorways, transitioning between scenes in only a few seconds. Trap doors are used effectively for the appearance and disappearance of both actors and set pieces. The Ladder to Heaven is truly something to behold.
Perestroika provided a better evening for those at London’s Lyttelton Theatre and those in the cinema. It is a more dynamic, entertaining, and vibrant piece of writing. That lends to stronger acting choices, more engaging designs, and more innovative direction.
Having assessed the cinematic experience and the production itself, I must now ask–and attempt to answer–the more important question:
Does this production work on screen? Not particularly well. But this flawed production does not work very well on stage either. In this case, the question is not one of quality but one of value. A thousand dollars for a round-trip ticket to London to purchase two $85 tickets to sit through this production is simply not worth the time or money.
But two $16 tickets to get to view a once-in-a-lifetime live production of one of the 20th century’s greatest plays, though the production is flawed? It is most certainly worth it.
There is much about the theatre that cannot be communicated on the screen: the cold damp smell from a fog machine, the intense shock of a strobe light, eye contact with a performer, or the sheer electric energy of being in the very space in which art is being created and absorbed. You can choose where to look and when to look there.
The camera, however, can be everywhere that you cannot. High above the stage, flying across the crowd toward the set, inches from the tears on an actor’s face, spotting a character’s twitching finger as she reveals a secret, seeing the entirety of a set in one giant shot. Behind-the-scenes glimpses and special interviews can accompany performances. And just think of the digital archives! If only a distributor would make them available for in-home viewing.
Both have advantages. Frankly, live theatre has more advantages than filmed theatre. But when you crave the magic as much as I do, this method is far better than none at all.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DinEV8NqKR0
Angels in America (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_in_America:_A_Gay_Fantasia_on_National_Themes
Tony Kushner (Playwright): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Kushner
National Theatre on Twitter: @NationalTheatre
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and writer. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.