At the end of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches I had a choice to make. I could either grab some dinner, and return for the evening performance of Perestroika, or I could go home. I decided to go home.
I shocked myself. I had been looking forward to seeing Angels in America for a long time. The production (a transfer from National Theatre Live) had racked up plaudits and awards all over the place. During Millennium Approaches I found Tony Kushner's writing alternatively funny, biting, insightful, thought-provoking. There were parts that in my opinion could have used some judicious cutting -- (one example: the opening monologue with the rabbi went on for way too long) but overall I was impressed with how little this play has dated. AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the artistic community is no longer losing so many talents to this dreaded disease but a good play is a good play. The many references to 1980's hot button issues also serve as a timely reminder about just how heartless Ronald Reagan was towards AIDS patients as nowadays many Democrats seem to view him through a gaze of nostalgia in comparison to Donald Trump.
Instead I walked out and decided not to return for the second part because I thought Kushner's play deserved a better presentation than it received. I don't think I've ever seen a production hampered by so many poor directorial and acting choices. (edit: I was also sick as a dog which is why I decided to see Perestroika later -- see below).
|Lee Pace and Denise Gough|
|McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, photo @ Helen Maybanks|
|Gough and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks|
And finally there was Susan Brown in the many roles: rabbi, Hannah Pitt (Joe's Mormon, unforgiving mother), Ethel Rosenberg. She played every single character with a cold, hard, steely demeanor. It got monotonous. One of the play's most memorable moments is when Roy Cohn remembers his machinations in getting Ethel executed. This is the "big reveal" moment when the audience realizes that Roy Cohn is even more monstrous than we expected. So his ghostly encounter with Ethel should show some sign that Ethel was someone sympathetic right? Not with Susan Brown.
|Nathan Lane, photo @ Helen Maybanks|
Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter also transformed himself completely from the star of the Spiderman movies into a sickly AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover Louis. Prior Walter is a tricky character to play: I didn't stay for the second half but it's clear even in the first half that he's being set up to be some sort of savior/messiah. Those types of characters can be hard to pull off as flesh and blood people. But Garfield manages to do it, and makes Walter's hallucinations with all the "prior" Prior Walters funny. I also liked Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize.
|Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks|
And so I decided to take an "L" for the day and went home. Since this show has been popping up with some regularity on TDF I'll try to see the second part sometime. But yeah, so basically I left Angels in America not because I didn't like the play but because I liked the play too much to see it killed by some uninspired acting. I'm reminded by Roy Cohn's speech:
I would have pulled the switch if they let me. Why? Because I hate traitors. I HATE communists. Was it legal? FUCK legal. Not nice? Fuck nice. The Nation says I'm not nice? FUCK THE NATION. Do you wanna be NICE? Or you wanna be EFFECTIVE.Tony Kushner's play cannot handle the Lee Pace/James McArdle "nice" performances. It needs way more energy to be effective.
|The final tableau|
UPDATE: Part of the reason I responded so poorly to Millennium Approaches was I was coming down with a nasty virus. I'm still home sick. But I am seeing Perestroika on 3/16 so I will update this as soon as I see Perestroika.
----------------------March 16, 2018
|Ethel Rosenberg visits Cohn|
Overall I found Perestroika to be a much weaker work than Millennium Approaches.Ushers told me that between last week and this week they had cut about 20 minutes of Perestroika. Well the play still felt endless. There are no doubt some brilliant scenes (Roy Cohn's death being one of them) but the play felt much more preachy, less organic, and more self -indulgent. Perestroika unlike Millennium Approaches does not have a very tight dramatic structure. The play weaves in and out between realism and surrealism, ozone layer and atmosphere, heaven and earth, angels and mortals. Sometimes I felt like I was listening to several a PhD thesis on religion, law, and politics.
In Millennium Approaches I recognized the brilliance of Kushner's play and was frustrated that I didn't think the actors were maximizing the impact. In Perestroika I'm not sure the greatest actors in the world could have made some of the monologues work. The opening monologue by some Soviet diplomat about, well, perestroika, was longer and even more unfunny than the rabbi's monologue that opened Millennium. Louis's long rant to Joe about legal decisions took some important political points and then proceeded to drain them of any interest because the tone of the monologue was so didactic and without nuance.
|Garfield and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks|
|Susan Brown and Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks|
|McArdle and Pace|
“And the dead will be commemorated and we’ll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
When this speech played in the 1990's, I can only imagine its impact. People in the United States were still dying of AIDS at a shocking rate. The anti-retroviral medicines had yet to be developed. There was no guarantee that the "great work" would even continue. Today AIDS is still a horrible virus that infects millions of people around the world, but with the right medications it's not a death sentence. But even with the improvements in life expectancy among those who are HIV+ the "great work" continues and it's now concentrated in places like sub-Saharan Africa where the countries lack the means to provide their patients with life-saving medication.
So Prior's speech TODAY should give us a reminder of what life was like back then, and how far we've come, but how much "great work" needs to done still. Yet this moment went for very little. Andrew Garfield's speech was nervous and jittery, and without any time, place and perspective the opportunity for a history lesson is lost.
If you want to see a truly great version of Angels in America, I highly recommend the HBO miniseries. Even if you don't have HBO it's available to rent on Amazon. The performances there are so pitch-perfect without a single false note and everyone is a flesh and blood character. And then here are extensive clips of the OBC in 1993. Watch how real those actors were, how little artifice there was. They are raw and powerful. In other words, they are everything that this revival of Angels in America is not.
This production is a lost opportunity. The great work continues, but this production is not the one that will inspire people to continue that great work.