"Angels Fall" transferred from the Off-Broadway Circle to the Longacre Theatre on January 22, 1983.
Here we are again. A clutch of souls temporarily confined, for one reason or another, to a roadside diner, a military post or, in the case of Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall," which opened Saturday night at the Circle Rep, to a church, a small New Mexico mission in an area threatened by a nearby uranium spill.
Since Wilson is a gifted and exceptionally deft playwright given the benefit of a first-rate cast directedy by Marshall W. Mason with considerable virtuosity, the evening flows along entertainingly enough as the six characters exchange confidences, insults and observations on the meaning of life until the authorities give the all-clear and the road is reopened for travel.
Wilson's main concern, expressed through a priest, Father William Doherty, is with man's proper behavior in a dissolving world. The answer is as it has always been: shoemaker, stick to your last. Or, in the present setup, teacher keep teaching, doctor keep doctoring, priest keep preaching, even to a congregation numbering no more than 15 or 20 Navajos not comprehending a word he says but capable of grunting responses.
With the road blocked on the phony pretext of a bridge down where none exists, into the dusty, adobe-like mission (John Lee Beatty's nice design) come a middle-aged professor (Fritz Weaver) headed for outrageously expensive psychiatric care in Phoenix in the company of his young wife (Nancy Snyder), an ex-student; a loutish young tennis ace (Brian Tarantina) and his mistress-manager, the middle-aged widow (Tanya Berezin) of a regional painter of some repute, and a surly young Indian who, it develops, is a medical genius currently serving his internship.
The play's only real suspense lies in the question of whether the Indian, Don Tabaha (Danton Stone), will accept a princely offer from a San Francisco lab to go into cancer research, or remain in New Mexico ministering to the various neglected tribes. Wilson has his cake and eats it, too, by neatly dodging a maudlin ending while offering us a dollop of sentiment.
The talk and situations are, for the most part, lively and interesting. Weaver, an expert on Renaissance art who has written devastatingly on the quality of the work by the late artist-husband of Berezin, is a severely rattled man who has recently created a scene by walking out on his class after discounting everything he has taught them or written. During a seizure, of course, the Indian promptly demonstrates his skill. The two women - the widow who must dispose of her late spouse's pictures and all their belongings when she moves back to Chicago, and the tenderly supportive wife of the teacher - have a heart-to-heart.
All are admirably set forth. But for all the weighty considerations, it is young Salvatore (Zappy) Zappala, the tennis star with the motor mouth and fear of everything from horror movies to ants, who engages us most with his flip talk, especially as set forth by Tarantina. Barnard Hughes is, naturally, a delight as ever with his portrayal of the meddlesome yet sensible, benign yet never soupy Father William. The players mesh together beautifully under Mason's confident hand.
Beatty's broad and evocative set is enhanced by Jennifer von Mayrhauser's artful costumes and Dennis Parichy's lighting (you can practically feel the June heat outside).
"Angels Fall," originally commissioned for and presented by a Miami festival, is a neat piece of play carpentry set before us with fine professional polish. If I half expected Duke Mantee and the rest of the "Petrified Forest" gang to drop in, or else Cherie and the "Bus Stop" crowd, well, that's the nature of the beast.
If this Broadway season can be said to have a trend - other than its downward curve - that must be the movement of plays from Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway, to Broadway itself.
Such transfers were not unknown in the past - and plays as diverse as Mass Appeal and The Elephant Man, or even A Chorus Line, have all gone that route. But this season it seems to have become a common progression.
David Hare's Plenty has already gone to Broadway, with Kate Nelligan and Edward Herrmann. Susan Sarandon is waiting in the wings with Extremities, as is the musical The Little Shop of Horrors.
Meanwhile, Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall has already arrived on Broadway, in its original production, and with its original cast from the Circle Repertory. It is playing at the Longacre Theater and it is a thousand times welcome - for this is assuredly one of the season's best plays.
When it was first staged last October, I wrote, in part: "Angels Fall is an exquisitely wrought old-fashioned new play. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It paints a clear story and invites us to make certain conclusions.
"It is realistic, yet it sings with a sweet, unaffected poetry. Angels Fall is set in New Mexico. There has been an accident in a uranium mine attached to a local nuclear-power plant. Six people - by this chance - meet in a tiny Catholic mission church.
"Six people, six stories and a nuclear accident - it all sounds rather pat. It certainly could have been. But Wilson - and, of course, his longtime collaborator, director Marshall W. Mason - deeply involve us in the action, which in a quiet, understated way becomes a parable of vocaton and survival.
"Wilson's world is astonishingly real - more deeply etched than the documented photo-realism we take for granted in cinema or television. His images of life remind rather than recall; they are painted rather than photographed.
"It is a realism carefully nurtured by the production. John Lee Beatty's adobe mission is a miracle of design and, together with Dennis Parichy's uncannily accurate lighting, transports the audience to sun and shelter in New Mexico.
"The acting is flawless - or as flawless as anyone has the right to expect. Among the cast, Fritz Weaver, gloriously frayed by disillusion as a burnt out professor on his way to a funny farm, and Danton Stone as a surly young Navajo Indian medical student bent on research, are outstanding.
"Yet the sweetest performance comes from Barnard Hughes, who as a skittishly fussy parish priest makes something close to sanctimonious saintliness totally bearable, indeed refreshing."
This is just the kind of play that should be on Broadway - and one worth waiting for.
"Angels Fall" transferred from the Off-Broadway Circle to the Longacre Theatre on January 22, 1983.
''Sometimes I am amazed at how human everyone is,'' says the Roman Catholic priest (Barnard Hughes) at the center of Lanford Wilson's new play, ''Angels Fall.'' He may be amazed, but we're not. By now we've come to depend on Mr. Wilson's talent for finding the humanity in everyone he places on a stage, whether the setting be the Hotel Baltimore or the Talley family's Missouri farm. With equal depth, this writer can draw young people and old, men and women, Jews and Christians (both faithful and lapsed), hetero- and homosexuals, idealists and cynics. Mr. Wilson is one of the few artists in our theater who can truly make America sing.
Though ''Angels Fall,'' which opened at the Circle Repertory Company on Saturday night, is not a successful play, its unmistakable flaws are often drowned out by the moving sound of its author's tender, democratic voice. There are six Wilson characters on view in this work - all different, all fully realized in the writing and by the exquisite cast assembled by the director, Marshall W. Mason. One is grateful to be among them even if they've been brought together by dubious means.
We meet them in a sun-baked mission in remote, northwest New Mexico, where the priest, named Father Doherty, does his good works with the sometime aid of his unofficial foster son, an Indian (Danton Stone) who's soon to pursue a brilliant medical career. On the day ''Angels Fall'' unfolds, this tranquil sanctuary is invaded by two September-May couples. A psychologically unraveled, middle-aged Ivy League art-history professor (Fritz Weaver) arrives with the young wife (Nancy Snyder) who is taking him to a plush sanitarium in Phoenix. They're soon joined by a wealthy local widow (Tanya Berezin) and her new ''boy toy'' of a lover (Brian Tarantina), an aspiring tennis star.
What these people have in common is that they are all spiritually confused. What keeps them together for the length of the play is a device: a nuclear accident occurs in the midst of New Mexico's nearby atomic complex, trapping everyone in the mission for its duration. This premise allows Mr. Wilson to stage what is called ''a little rehearsal for the end of the world'' and to raise a Biblical question: if the apocalypse is really around the corner, ''what manner of person'' are we all to be? ''Angels Fall'' is a series of debates and crises that propels each troubled character into making that choice.
The play's ailments, a few cheap jokes aside, are built in. Mr. Wilson can't escape the contrived nature of his plot gimmick; it seems like double overkill that his lost souls find themselves in both a real-life apocalypse and a church as they grapple with their crises of faith. And along with the locked-room format come the creaky conventions of the well-made play. The path from exposition to catharsis to resolution is too predictable; it's implausible as well as sentimental that all six characters would neatly arrive at individual ephiphanies by the final curtain.
Yet the human spirits bottled up in the play's artificial enclosure are real. Mr. Wilson is a master at confounding our expectations about characters who, at first glance, might appear to be stereotypes. Initially, one might mistake Father Doherty for a typical Barnard Hughes leprechaun: he's a jolly, liberal clergyman who enjoys top-40 radio music, tolerates profanity and serves his visitors both jokes and lemonade. (''I love a tirade!,'' he sings, vaudeville-style, as his visitors argue.) But there are unmistakable creases of pain at the corners of Mr. Hughes's dancing eyes, and the playwright ultimately explains them by showing that even the good Father is capable of unsaintly vanity.
The others are no less surprising. Miss Berezin's tough-minded widow (her husband was a celebrated artist) is buoyed by unexpected gusts of warmth and generosity. Mr. Tarantina's tennis pro is no petulant gigolo, but a likable, even farcical hypochondriac. Mr. Stone's Indian, torn between a future spent helping his needy people or a glamorous job in cancer research, first appears to be a hostile, self-righteous prig, then breaks out of that shell to emerge, paradoxically, as the play's foremost hero and biggest child.
Mr. Wilson's supreme achievement in this play, though, is the academic couple. The sad old professor, whose 30-year career ended when he had a breakdown in mid-lecture, is a volatile mixture of dissipation, terminal self-doubts and lingering intellectual arrogance. Having renounced his own scholarly works and the ivory tower that fostered them, he is left with only one belief - that ''teaching is harmful.'' As played with a broken patrician voice, a sunken insomniac's face and idly floppy hands by Mr. Weaver, he seems to embody all the glories and tragedies inherent in the academic life. His beautiful wife, a former student who became his keeper, is a paragon of self-composure and strength, but not so much so that she doesn't crack, however delicately, when her panicked husband tries to shove her, too, into his abyss.
Miss Snyder, who hasn't worked nearly enough since she brilliantly created the role of the flipped-out heiress in the original Circle Rep production of ''Fifth of July,'' is the perfect, counterbalancing force to the dynamic Mr. Weaver. But the whole production is above reproach. Mr. Mason's staging suffuses ''Angels Fall'' with a mood of repose that reinforces the setting's serenity and suggests the ecstasy of inner peace that the characters seek. John Lee Beatty has designed a spartan adobe mission of dreamlike radiance, and Dennis Parichy floods it with Southwestern light worthy of Georgia O'Keeffe. Even the finest details in Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes help distract us from the evening's larger failings. If you examine Mr. Weaver's flamboyant breast pocket handkerchief, you'll find that it is soiled yet fastidiously folded - a white flag of surrender that, like Mr. Wilson's fallen but salvation-hungry angels, can't quite give up the fight.