Why I Walked Out of Angels in America UPDATED: Saw Perestroika!

The Angel, photo @ Sara Krulwich

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
Where do I start? The #1 mistake was the casting of Lee Pace as Joe Pitt. Joe is already an unlikable character but Pace just about killed him. Pace's delivery of his lines was so wooden, so lifeless, that he sucked the energy out of every scene he was in. He really seemed like he was reading straight from cue cards or a powerpoint. In fact I've seen corporate keynote addresses that had more sparkle than Pace. I could not believe he read for this part and director Marianne Elliot said "Yes that's it. He's our guy." The scenes between Joe and Louis, Joe and Roy Cohn, Joe and Harper, were all sapped of any vitality. For instance in the painful scenes between Joe and Harper I think we're supposed to sense that Joe is genuinely tormented by his poor treatment of Harper. Joe delivered his lines with all the passion of a 5th grader in a spelling bee. The conflict and guilt that Joe feels is just not there and thus a hard-to-like character becomes simply annoying.

McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, photo @ Helen Maybanks
Running a close second to Lee Pace was the choice to cast James McArdle as Louis. Louis is one of those stereotypical neurotic Jewish characters that populate theater. The thing about these characters is that if played the right way they can be endearing. I hate Woody Allen's personal life choices but damn if he isn't lovable in Annie Hall. McArdle makes Louis all whine, all whimpering, ZERO humor or charm. His long monologue on race relations that started the third act was what cemented my decision to go home. Three and a half hours with McArdle and Pace was already 3.5 hours too much. I couldn't bear to imagine having to spend another 4.5 hours with them.

Gough and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I had been impressed with Denise Gough in People, Places and Things. I was therefore surprised at how unaffecting her Harper Pitt was. She recycled some of the same tics and mannerisms she used in People, Places and Things but Emma and Harper are very different characters. Gough also seemed like she was concentrating so hard on getting that flat "typical" American accent just right that she ignored the character's pathos. These strung-out, drug-addled miserable wives are a beloved theater trope for a good reason: they work in touching the heart. Actresses always want to play Mary Tyrone or Birdie Hubbard. Gough made Harper ... well, she made her annoying. For someone who is addicted to valium Gough read her lines like she'd popped too many speed pills instead. And she also didn't get the occasional flashes of humor and irony in Harper that give the audience hope that underneath the drug addiction there's a spirit waiting to come out. In fairness to Gough Kushner's writing for Harper is very tricky. Lots of rambling about ozone layers and Antarctica and other flights of fancy to show that Harper isn't all there. But it can sound very stagey.

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
It's a shame because amidst all this disappointing acting Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn gave the play so much energy and life. Nathan Lane can't resist making Roy Cohn a funny bastard more than a truly evil man. But then again, Roy Cohn probably did have a sort of snake oil charm to him and Lane knows how to deliver lines and jokes with timing, precision, character. All things sorely missing from Pace, McArdle, and Gough. And as a result Cohn became one of the few "likable" characters onstage in the sense that I was interested in his storyline arc and wanted to follow him. Cohn might have been a loathsome socipath in real life, but in this production at least he has spunk and doesn't talk like a zombie.

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
I wasn't just disappointed with the acting. I thought some of Marianne Elliot's directorial choices were head-scratching. First of all, Adrian Sutton's music that accompanies the play has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's loud, bombastic, and frankly unlikable. The three storylines were done on a turntable with each "set" looking like the waiting room in a dentist's office. The "angel" reveal was this: the theater blacked out, and then there was an explosion, and the angel (Beth Malone in this performance) was held up by two puppeteers. The audience was screaming. Why? It was a cheap effect.

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
I went back to see Perestroika a little less than a week after I walked out on the double header. I was no longer feeling the effects of the nasty virus and was determined to give the entire Angels in America a chance.

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
With that being said, Perestroika also exposed the limits of Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield's acting abilities. I had liked them a lot in Millennium Approaches but in Perestroika their approaches were too one-note. Garfield in particular must have shrieked the entire time he was onstage. He started at a level 10 of hysteria and had nowhere to go. Nathan Lane also tried too hard to wring humor and laughter out of Cohn's character. Cohn is in such a grim state of affairs in Perestroika that the slick humor that was believable in Millennium Approaches (when Cohn still had the facade of luxury and power) did not work when Cohn was desperate, dying, on a morphine drip, and disbarred. Even with these weaknesses though Lane is still bar none the best actor of the production.

Susan Brown and Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
But the whole production suffers from some weak casting in principal and supporting parts. Lee Pace in Perestroika has to go the full monty but his awkward, stilted delivery was as much of an energy sucker as it had been in Millennium. Susan Brown in Perestroika has a scene that if done right should absolutely break the heart. Hannah Pitt has to accompany Prior to the hospital after he faints at the Mormon center. Prior shows Hannah the lesions that have wrecked his body. Hannah quietly holds Prior's hand. Susan Brown keeps a stiff upper lip in this scene when some sentiment and softness are needed. And James McArdle's Louis went from annoying in Millennium to truly unbearable in Perestroika.  He played him as so shrill, whiny, selfish that he just gave us no reason why we should care about this guy. Denise Gough's character of Harper has a smaller role in Perestroika and she faded almost completely out of the play, her monotonous droning voice simply becoming a nuisance. I also thought Nathan Stewart-Jarrett's Belize was stereotypical to the point of being offensive.

McArdle and Pace
The directorial choices in Perestroika were also questionable: again, Marianne Elliot resisted any effort to put the play in a specific place and time. But Perestroika has even more of a 1980's/early 90's zeitgeist than Millennium. The long discussions about Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War make the nowhere-land approach mind-boggling. It also dulled the impact of one of the play's most famous moments: when Prior breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience about how "the great work begins":

“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.

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.


  1. I am in virtually total agreement I would suggest that Ethel Rosenberg's stolid quality reflects the director's view that Ethel was a Stalinist. (I was raised a Brooklyn Jew during the McCarthy Era. My whole family was glued to the live coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings.) Rumor had it that Ethel was interviewed and asked what a husband was in a sinking boat and could save either his wife or their child. What should the husband do. Ethel was reported to have replied, "The mother is the tree and the child is the fruit. You can replace the child but you cannot replace the tree." In the original production, Ethel was rigid, unforgiving, and bound on vengeance in the name of justice. (Think of some our favorite operatic characters.) I have no idea of whether Kushner thinks that she's a Stalinist or a Trotskyite. Another depiction of her as a more loving person might well be found in her son's biography of her.

    1. Well recent evidence has incriminated Julius for sure but is equivocal about Ethel. I think however that as a character int he play Roy Cohn's hallucinations are supposed to show a glimmer of humanity and therefore it's more effective if Ethel was played with more humanity.


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