If any work of art summed up the zeitgeist of Reagan-era America, it was “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Tony Kushner’s epic two-part phantasmagoric take on national and sexual politics. It centered around the larger-than-life character of Roy Cohn, the anti-Communist Jewish lawyer whose internal conflicts (the play suggests) embodied American society’s inability to heal its own terribly fractured soul. Widely considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, “Angels” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, to be produced all over the world and to inspire a powerful star-studded film adaptation by Mike Nichols.
Now, “Angels” returns to Broadway, starring Nathan Lane as Cohn, at a time when a protégé of Cohn’s named Donald Trump is in the White House, and when many fear that American society is again ripping apart at the seams.
“Angels” is helmed by the British director Marianne Elliott (“War Horse,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) with most of its National Theatre cast intact. (The production premiered last year in London.)
The characters in the play, beginning with the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” are mostly Jewish and Mormon; the Jewish ones include Cohn, with whom the play opens, and a nebbishy gay Jewish man, Louis Ironson (James McArdle), who is grappling with the death of his immigrant Jewish grandmother and the news that his non-Jewish lover, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), has AIDS. Cohn’s closeted gay Mormon law clerk, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace), attracts Louis, as Joe’s marriage to an emotionally troubled Mormon woman, Harper (Denise Gough), is foundering.
The lives of the characters intersect at an exponential rate, while the boundaries between earth and heaven become porous. The second part of the play, “Perestroika,” follows many of the same characters, with the introduction of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown), who comes back from the dead to say Kaddish for Cohn. “Perestroika” concludes with a collective ritual of rebirth at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. The new production unites both parts of the play and runs a total of seven and a half hours.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Kushner said that this production of “Angels” is the “gantze megillah — the whole thing.” Because the director took a year to research the play and spent 12 weeks rehearsing with the cast, he said, “there’s a depth of exploration that makes it both thrilling and challenging to watch.” And he is “shocked,” he added, “at how relevant so much of it seems, as political malfeasance has recrudesced in increasingly virulent forms since the time the play was written.”
Indeed, while the play was revived in 2010 at the Signature Theater Off-Broadway, the playwright finds that our present time resembles the Reagan years much more than 2010 did. For example, Kushner noted, the play contains references to impending environmental catastrophes.
And while the play centers on the marginalization of gay people, which is less pervasive nowadays than it was when the play premiered in the early 1990s or even its 2010 revival, Kushner pointed out that there are many plays that “represent forms of oppression that existed at one point in time but that still maintain a kind of power. The door slamming at the end of ‘A Doll’s House’ can still terrify you even as it fills you with hope. We are all in the process of liberating ourselves in one way or another.”
“Angels,” he added, is also a “very New York play. It is set almost entirely in New York, and it culminates in the scene at the Bethesda Fountain in which the characters unite. It’s not just a gay thing of forming a family from unrelated people,” Kushner said. “It’s about the fact that New York has taken heterogeneity to its height; it incessantly, relentlessly mixes us together all the time.”
And “Angels” is also, the playwright observed, “a very Jewish play,” with its references near the beginning to Louis’ immigrant grandmother and the Old World that she represented. As the rabbi who is doing the funeral in the play says, “soon all the old will be dead.” For his part, Kushner finds that idea “heartbreaking,” explaining that he “misses that generation so much, the generation of my grandmother. We’ve moved so far from that world.” He quoted Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, “The antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering’ but justice.”
Elliott’s conception of the play takes it in surprising new directions. As she said recently during a break from rehearsals, the angel who descends at the end of “Millennium Approaches” is traditionally, in her words, a “glorious, fabulous, Greco-Roman being who descends on a wire.” By contrast, her angel, who moves all over the stage through the use of cords that are manipulated by on-stage puppeteers, is, in her words, “scary, feral and apocalyptic. She signifies that heaven is eroding.” The play, Elliott said, is ultimately “about the power of the imagination — it goes to a lot of magical places.”
“Angels in America” is now in previews for a March 25 opening at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. Both parts of the play are sold together. For tickets ($99-$198), visit ticketmaster.com.