“There are no angels in America,” Louis Ironson tells us in the last act of Millenium Approaches—but as so often, Louis doesn’t have a clue. They abound in Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s magnificent two-part epic vision of the United States in the age of AIDS, which has only grown in stature in the quarter-century since its premiere. Kushner’s angels bring succor and even the promise of hope.
Yet after more than eight hours of impressively big-budget theatrics, the overwhelming takeaway in Marianne Elliott’s production is, figuratively and literally, darkness. This is a production mired in stygian gloom.
Nowhere is this clearer than in those angels. The one who takes human form looks like a refugee from a Tim Burton movie, with a shock of white hair and cinched into a steampunk black corset. While she eventually goes aloft, this angel—also called Fluor, Phosphor, Lumen, etc.— is most memorably seen scurrying across the floor like a spider, accompanied by weird minions who are also wearing black. Her metaphoric counterpart, the magnificent sculpted Angel of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain—a vision that appears toward the end of Perestroika—is here outlined in lurid fluorescent tubing, and looks like a Las Vegas sign.
There are many ways to view Angels in America, a play that certainly has its brutal side—and there’s textual support for Elliott’s approach. I imagine she drew particular inspiration from this striking passage, a speech by the Mormon Mother who appears in a diorama:
Well, it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.
Still, to me the real greatness of Kushner’s play (almost astonishing, given the topic) is its heart, humor, and underlying optimism—qualities that are hard to find in the shadowy murk.
At least Elliott’s handling of Fluor/Phosphor/Lumen is ugliness with a conceptual purpose. It’s infinitely preferable to the drabness that robs Millenium Approaches in particular of its grandeur. Most of the two-person scenes are housed in unspecific little boxes that rotate around the stage. The seemingly random orbiting is effective, suggesting worlds that are connected but out of kilter. But the cramped closeness and drab, atmosphere-free settings make revelatory conversations seem ordinary. Elliott has much more success with Perestroika, which often does have a sense of sweep. But here too, the world is dark… and there are few images that suggest America. (Of course, some of this may come to life in the theater in a way that the HD-cast misses.)
Susan Brown is a grim, clenched Hannah who barks out her lines. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Belize relies too much on stereotypical black queen gestures. (To be fair, those who saw Jeffrey Wright as Belize are likely to have trouble accepting anyone else in the role.) As the Angel, Amanda Lawrence is effective and moves well, but she’s uninspiring as the hospital caregiver.
The others are also a mixed bag. James McArdle sounds uncannily like Gene Wilder—he captures Louis’s nebbishy amiability, but not his intense, strident idealism. The sweetly boyish Russell Tovey makes Joe the most appealing character in this Angels, but it’s hard to see the moxie that’s advanced him in tough-as-nails Republican legal circles. Denise Gough is an initially grating Harper, but she finds more colors and likeability in Perestroika. Nathan Lane is a showboater par excellence—this performance is a lot of Lane, but not so much Cohn, especially the latter’s quiet viciousness. (Lane is better playing Roy as he grows sicker—and he and Tovey are sensational as the two historical Priors.)
The presence of a bona fide movie star—Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter—disturbs the balance of this ensemble piece. He gives an extravagant, virtuosic performance that’s a mix of terrific moments and self-indulgence—his tear-stained delivery of the “I want more life” speech robs it of irony. I also vastly prefer Kushner’s original ending to this scene, where Prior follows his request for more life with an angry exit line about God: “And if He returns, take Him to court. He walked out on us. He ought to pay.” That line is missing here, as are some other iconic ones.
Still, it’s a monumental achievement to have—finally—Angels in America on film from a theater. (Mike Nichols HBO film version is often extraordinary, especially in Perestroika—but this is a work made for the stage.) The National Theater has the necessary resources to pull it off, and there’s considerable power in Elliot’s vision, which is, to be sure, “the idea of democracy… with blood in it,” as Louis says. But precious little sunlight.