When Tony Kushner’s magnum opus first premiered in 1991, it was arguably the play of a generation. That generation was that of the AIDS epidemic, full of people who had seen friends die and the world casting them aside with zero explanation. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a work of such magnitude and scope that it quickly claimed a place in the canon of American drama, primarily because its immediacy and complex perspective on those affected proved to be something of a catharsis for that ravaged sector of society.
The great work that Angels became was one with a storied legacy and a long backstory regarding its initial days of production. The play has been revived numerous times, from a storied return at the Pershing Square Signature Center to a deconstructed, minimalist take from Dutch auteur Ivo van Hove. This time around, the National Theatre brings their West End production to the Neil Simon Theatre for a limited run.
To some extent, this production of Angels works, though perhaps not in the ways most lovers of the work would have hoped. Marianne Elliott, known for her grand storytelling skills as a director, made her name on works like War Horse and the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This time around, however, something appears to have been lost in translation.
While the dimensional demands of the show seem to fit Elliott’s aesthetic as a director, there is something strangely hollow in this particular revival, with its neon lights invoking a 1980s nostalgia and the turntables used to swing between locations.
Unfortunately, this hollowness is more apparent in some spots than in others. Kushner’s work is by no means an easy show to direct, but this time around there appears to be subtext lost in the revival.
The show’s design, brought competently to form by Elliott’s usually ace team, bears a few bizarre creative decisions. The set by Ian MacNeil, which slowly begins to disintegrate as reality begins to do the same for the characters, seems strangely cold in its approach, almost as if the characters are living in a dystopia of decently functioning scenery.
Lighting from Paule Constable also seems to just fill in the checkboxes rather than create some kind of new atmosphere. The neon that lines so much of the jigsaw-turntable set becomes grating and pointless after one hour of this seven-and-a-half-hour marathon. It also becomes overbearing and difficult to see during some moments of the play, which only adds to said pointlessness.
This is not to say that the entirety of the design is a detraction to the show at large. The apparent concept that it was based around is most certainly valid, just a boring one. Illusions from Chris Fisher result in plenty of downright magical tricks and treats that an observant audience member would drop their jaw at.
Meanwhile, the puppetry movement and design from Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes is some of their best work, and well-suited to the magical realist fantasia that is Angels. The incidental music from Adrian Sutton is wonderfully loud and brash in an operatic way that makes the case for the latest trend in scoring plays.
The cast is a mixed bag. Andrew Garfield, while truly brutal in his anger and sadness about his AIDS diagnosis as Prior Walter, portrays an almost too stereotypical “gay accent” that, at times, comes off as downright offensive. Garfield’s Prior has some of the most important speeches in the play, reaffirming human life and the desire to live out one’s best days as fully as possible, but the voice given to him deflates some of their power.
This production’s Louis, played by James McArdle, is a decent one but it feels as if McArdle hits a beat or two a little too quickly in some cases, detracting from the pain and moral lows that hit his character in the story.
Lee Pace is a much rougher, more interesting Joe Pitt, adding a layer of stone to the humility that Joe feels by the end of the play’s second part. Susan Brown, who plays Joe’s mother, Hannah, plays her myriad of unusual ghosts and wise men with wonderful efficiency, but her accent needs some work. It is almost as if Hannah came from County Cork rather than from Salt Lake City.
Denise Gough as Joe’s undersexed, over-medicated wife, Harper, is a ray of silver light that makes the entire stage shiver. Her presence and skills add a complexity that would be missing in the hands of a less-talented actress, especially in a character that one might view as one of Kushner’s weaker creations.
Nathan Lane plays the walking, suited embodiment of poison in human form, Roy Cohn, tapping off with a career move that could be seen as his equivalent of playing King Lear. Lane gives such slime and nuance to one of the worst scumbags in New York City’s history, it is almost enough to make viewers believe that the actor is just as monstrous.
The Angel, played by Amanda Lawrence, presides in a magnificent glory that keeps the work afloat, terrifying and voyeuristically wonderful as Heaven’s emissary, with a movement and voice that would rattle the walls of any America that she chose to watch over. Lawrence’s addition to the production is nearly enough to make up for the contraption that is this uneven production.
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