We tend to imagine/recall Tony Kushner’s seven-hour, two-part drama “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” as something operating at epic, even operatic scale.
This production reminds us that Angels doesn’t need fly towers or even a pair of wings to soar. Sure, it’s impressive to have an angel come crashing through the ceiling (as one famously did on Broadway) but ultimately, it would be a hollow moment were the roof of this world not held up Kushner’s truthful, sometimes agonisingly funny depictions of people in crisis.
Millennium Approaches and its sequel Perestroika captures the American zeitgeist of the Reagan presidency in dozens of such scenes, most often between two characters, the main being: Prior Walter (played here by Ben Gerrard), a gay New Yorker of ancient lineage now stricken with AIDS; Prior’s partner Louis (Timothy Wardell), a word processing clerk in a New York City judge’s office; Joe Pitt (Gus Murray), a Mormon lawyer grappling with his long-repressed homosexuality, and Harper (Catherine Davies), Joe’s unhappy, Valium-popping wife.
Then there is the catalytic, drawn-from-life figure of Roy Cohn (Ashley Lyons), the infamous political fixer and anti-communist who admits privately to fucking a lot of men, but would never – even with a gun to his head – identify as homosexual.
This staging, directed by Dino Dimitriadis for Apocalypse Theatre Company (makers of 2018’s Metamorphoses), takes the playwright’s published notes to producers as gospel:
“The plays benefit from a pared-down style of presentation, with scenery kept to an evocative and informative minimum … I recommend rapid scene shifts (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands in shifting the scene. This must be an actor-driven event …”
Both plays are mounted on the same set, a versatile black box with extras designed by Jeremy Allen, who tucks larger elements of the set – desks, hospital beds – into cupboards until needed. Spaces are quickly defined by arrays of moveable spotlights overhead, a chair or two, a pile of bedding.
An upstage platform, which serves as an otherworldly portal and hospital suite among other things, sits behind sliding panels.
The performances reflect similar restraint and economy. Gerrard is a gently luminous Prior, brimming with the terror of death and dying alone. Wardell is contrastingly nervy as the self-flagellating Louis, who talks himself out of the guilt he feels for abandoning his lover at every opportunity. Davies and Murray are well matched (as in convincingly uncomfortable) as Harper and Joe. Murray’s clean-cut good looks – think Clark Kent or a 1950s American football star – are an asset here.
Lyons is a touch young to play Cohn (who was nearly 60 when he died) and has yet to find the malign aura of a man who has plumbed the absolute depths, but his ferocity and charisma are unquestionable. He makes you feel the chilling pessimism underlying Cohn’s worldview and Perestroika hits its emotional peak in the scenes devoted to the man’s demise.
Jude Gibson paints multiple portraits in fine detail and with humorous touches: an elderly rabbi; Joe’s mother, who sells her Salt Lake City House to track don’t her errant son; Henry, Cohn’s exasperated doctor; and the executed radical Ethel Rosenberg, whose spirit haunts Cohn in his final hours. Maggie Dence is both formidable and crotchety as the American Angel.
For me though, the outstanding performance of the show is that of recent NIDA graduate Joseph Althouse, whose graceful Belize (Prior’s friend and nurse on the AIDS ward) effortlessly steals every scene, even those in which he barely speaks.
Angels is a massive project for an independent company to undertake and neither opening night revealed a completely finished product. Millennium in particular lacked some ease in its transitions and the play’s climax needs some tweaking in order for the audience to experience something of the same fear and wonder that Prior does. At the moment, we’re reduced to squinting.
The longer, talkier Perestroika feels the more strongly grounded and emotionally nuanced of the two plays at this stage.
The world has turned under Kushner’s mighty theatrical achievement. Thirty years and five presidents have passed, and the spectre of death haunting its characters has been – in developed nations at any rate – held in abeyance for some years now. But the richness and inventiveness of these plays is such that even if you’ve seen them before (this was my fourth Millennium and third Perestoika), you’ll find yourself swept up and away.