One of the interesting things about "Millennium Approaches," Part One of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," which opened last spring, was how often audience members talked about the naked body of Stephen Spinella, who played a man with AIDS.
The body, marked by lesions, was incredibly thin. Did the actor really have AIDS? The issue became so hot that The Paper of Record interviewed Spinella to assure readers he was not sick.
The reason Spinella's ascetic body took on such significance, I suspect, is that it was a more tangible image of the play's concerns than the fantasizing and intellectualizing preoccupying Kushner.
There is a comparable moment in "Perestroika," the 3 1/2-hour sequel. Roy Cohn (Ron Leibman), hospitalized with AIDS, in a fit of anger rips an intravenous tube from his arm. Immediately he begins to bleed. Here, too, is a reality far more pungent than most of the surrounding play. The danger of exposure to such blood has been the stuff of headlines, but Kushner doesn't focus on it.
Kushner is again after metaphorical rather than literal game. Part One ended with an angel breaking through the ceiling of Prior Walter's (Spinella) bedroom. In this play, there are a lot of angels. Like the Biblical Jacob, Walter wrestles with his angel, who gives him a glimpse of heaven (it resembles San Francisco) and then anoints Walter a prophet.
This enables Walter to fly around New York in search of the plot threads left dangling in Part One. He finds his former lover Louis, who deserted him as soon as he became really sick. He compiles a dossier on Louis' new lover, Joe, the Mormon Republican befriended by Roy Cohn. He even meets Joe's dour mother, Hannah.
When she discovers Walter is a homosexual, she asks if he's a hairdresser. "It'd be your lucky day if I was," he tells her. It is she who urges him to wrestle with his angel and secure a blessing.
Cohn is also visited by an angel, an angel of death in the form of an aloof Ethel Rosenberg (played ominously by Kathleen Chalfant, who also plays Hannah Pitt). It is Ethel who brings Cohn the news he has been disbarred. It is also she who recites for him the Jewish prayer for the dead, a prayer Louis confuses with the blessing over wine.
The fanciful plot and the bitchy humor reminded me of the plays of Ron Tavel, which were also subversive, but in a mirthful, unpretentious way. Kushner is always trying to invest his images with deep significance. (The dying Cohn, for example, is compared with America - "terminal, crazy and mean.")
In certain ways, "Perestroika" is more enjoyable than its predecessor because it is more playful. There is a funny sequence, for example, in which Hannah, her hapless daughter-in-law (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walter met at the Mormon Visitors Center. In a diorama of the Mormon migration, Kushner finds more evidence of America's yearnings after myth.
But he is never able to make his perceptions coalesce. The play is full of political humor (much of it already dated) and political points. The angels Kushner battles yield their blessings all too readily. Kushner the polemicist always wins out over Kushner the chronicler of the American psyche.
The cast (the same as in Part One) remains powerful, the physical production elegant. But "Perestroika," which, as its title suggests, describes a period of transition and pain, adds little to what we already know.
With heavenly wings flapping portentously, "Perestroika," Part Two of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," arrived at the Walter Kerr Theater last night, joyously closing the circle on one of the most highly praised plays in recent history.
That cliffhanger of the play's first part, "The Millennium Approaches," - leaving the hero faced with both death and an angel - was confronted, and I suppose resolved, in the second part of this self-styled "gay fantasia on national themes."
Yet, marvelous attributes notwithstanding, a sense of disappointment - perhaps unreasonably - hung in the air. The very title "Perestroika" - or "Restructuring" in Gorbachev Russian - suggested a more solid solution or antidote to problems both gay and national than Kushner proffered, even though the man's a playwright after all, not a patent medicine.
Thus we were left with just a second installment of Kushner's melange of politics, sex and religion (not necessarily in that order), all seen as kind of part college strip-cartoon and part satirically observed soap opera.
It's a very long play by modern standards - like Part One, this Part Two lasts some 3 1/2 hours - but Kushner's command over his material makes it flash by, with its intercutting scenes, though no overlapping dialogue as in Part One, offering a mosaic-fantasia that spurts into very funny, usually gay-camp, humor at the very suggestion of tediousness.
For example wait for a simple joke about "Hairdressers," not only absolutely hilarious but archetypical of Kushner's anarchic sense of pained irony.
There is wonderful serio-comic writing here, all of it played to the hilt by the same cast as in Part One, staged as before with virtuoso fluency by George C. Wolfe, and with epically apt scenery, costumes and lighting by, respectively, Robin Wagner, Toni-Leslie James and Jules Fisher.
The disappointing aspect of the play is the way Kushner seems so easily lulled into cozy platitude and cliche - God should be sue, the World's too hard, Heaven is a City rather like San Francisco. Sure! And love will one day make the world go round and repair the gashes in the ozone layer. Right on!
Yet, unquestionably, there is some huge-screen vision here - some vast, windy concept of the problem of pain and injustice in our society - being evoked, if only sporadically illuminated. But for the aspiration - for that alone - enormous thanks.
And Kushner peoples his phantasmagoria with great, sharply realistic characters - the savagely comic Roy Cohn, played with expectorating, explosive bile by Ron Liebman, Steven Spinella's whimsically wicked, spindly, long-dying prophet and Jeffrey Wright's raw and motherly nurse, are luminously wonderful.
Then there are Joe Mantello's faint-hearted and smart-assed Jewish underachiever, the idiosyncratic Mormon complexities of the characters played by David Marshall Grant, Kathleen Chalfant and Marcia Gay Harden.
"Angels in America" is probably no masterpiece - it could have the kind of shelf-life suffered by John Dos Passos - still it is one of those plays defining an era, a work of today's imagination and sensibility, and today at least, can on no account be missed.
If you end the first half of an epic play with an angel crashing through a Manhattan ceiling to visit a young man ravaged by AIDS, what do you do for an encore?
If you are Tony Kushner, the author of "Angels in America," you follow the angel up into the stratosphere, then come back home with a healing vision of heaven on Earth. "Perestroika," the much awaited Part 2 of Mr. Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," is not only a stunning resolution of the rending human drama of Part 1, "Millennium Approaches," but also a true millennial work of art, uplifting, hugely comic and pantheistically religious in a very American style.
Set at once in New York City in the real plague year of 1986 and on a timeless, celestial threshold of revelation, it has the audacity to ask big questions in its opening moments: "Are we doomed? Will the past release us? Can we change? In time?" And then, even more dazzlingly, come the answers, delivered in three and a half hours of spellbinding theater embracing such diverse and compelling native legends as the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Mormon iconography of Joseph Smith and the MGM film version of "The Wizard of Oz."
The opening questions are asked by a character who never reappears: a blind Russian man who is the world's oldest living Bolshevik. "Perestroika" is aptly titled not because it has much to do with the former Soviet Union but because it burrows into that historical moment of change when all the old orders, from Communism to Reaganism, are splintering, and no one knows what apocalypse or paradise the next millennium might bring. "How are we to proceed without theory?" asks the cross, aged Bolshevik. Not the least of Mr. Kushner's many achievements is his refusal to adhere to any theatrical or political theory. "Angels in America" expands in complexity as it moves forward, unwilling to replace gods that failed with new ones any more than it follows any textbook rules of drama.
Even so, Mr. Kushner does not neglect the intimate tales of the characters who captured the audience's imagination in Part 1. The show at the Walter Kerr Theater, where both parts will now play in repertory, is still driven by two antithetical AIDS patients, the 31-year-old free spirit Prior Walter (Stephen Spinella) and the closeted old right-wing cynic Roy Cohn (Ron Leibman). Louis Ironson (Joe Mantello), the leftist Jewish lover who deserted Prior, begins an affair with the Republican, Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (David Marshall Grant) early in Part 2, even as Joe's wife, Harper (Marcia Gay Harden), continues to drift in a Valium-induced fantasy of Antarctica. Belize (Jeffrey Wright), the black former drag queen, turns up as Cohn's sassy hospital nurse while Joe's mother (Kathleen Chalfant), who has left Salt Lake City and now works at the Mormons' Visitor Center in New York, becomes an equally unlikely solace to Prior.
The collisions of these people are often more comic than you might expect. In classical terms, "Perestroika" is a comedy, for it brings all its characters' conflicts into more or less peaceful resolution, with much laughter along the way. When Louis and Joe go to bed, for instance, their irreconcilable political differences turn their coupling into a riotous ideological fistfight -- "a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel," in Louis's aghast summation -- even though the utter selfishness of both men, guiltless conservative and guilty liberal alike, binds them closer than their knee-jerk party lines admit. When Ethel Rosenberg (Ms. Chalfant) returns from the grave to exchange wisecracks with Cohn and then say the kaddish for him, Mr. Kushner rebalances the scales of justice and revives the gallows humor of Lenny Bruce even as he blankets the scene with the reconciliatory poetic cadences of the prayer. How much more cosmically comic can you get?
Still more so, as it happens. The crux of "Perestroika" is the tying up of the greatest dangling thread from Part 1: that final-curtain arrival of the Angel who anoints Prior a prophet. As played by Ellen McLaughlin with down-to-earth puckishness, the Angel proves something of a comedian in Part 2. Up to a point. She is also, as Prior comes to realize, an angel of stasis and death. Pursuing a fever dream as vivid as the one that propelled Judy Garland to Munchkinland, Prior climbs to a heaven resembling the earthquake-shattered San Francisco of 1906. Given a red epistolary book and robe, if not red slippers, he encounters a conclave of angels on his way to deciding just what kind of prophet he will be when he returns to a home that God seems to have abandoned.
Prior's searching pilgrimage is echoed throughout "Perestroika" by the Mormon, Jewish and black characters and implicitly by their pioneer, immigrant and enslaved ancestors. As Prior journeys to heaven, so the Mormon mannequins in a wagon-train diorama come magically to life; Belize is possessed by the ghosts of Abolitionist days while Louis must wrestle with his discarded Jewishness. Only Cohn stays adamantly put, canonizing himself as "the heartbeat of modern conservatism" even as he consigns Henry Kissinger and George Schulz to history's dustbin along with the more expected names on his enemies' list.
It takes an artist of Mr. Kushner's talent and empathic powers to elevate Cohn, a mere scoundrel in real life, into a villain of such wit and cunning that he becomes mesmerizing theatrical company. Mr. Leibman, his face ashen, his eyes rimmed in red, his stooped posture wrapped in a demonic green robe, plays him with savage grandeur in "Perestroika," as a sweaty pulp of rage and hatred and blasted nerves. A whirligig of malevolence, he barks "Find the vein, you moron!" to Belize one moment, then blackmails Iran-contra conspirators for a supply of AZT the next. As always, his telephone serves as an extra appendage -- his last word in "Angels in America," like his first, is "Hold!" -- but now the cord is entwined with the many tubes of his illness. This does not stop Mr. Leibman, in an absolutely terrifying scene, from ripping loose of his IV, his poisoned blood spurting everywhere, to make one last hypocritical plea that Joe, his gay protege, return to his heterosexual marriage.
This patient from hell notwithstanding, George C. Wolfe, the director, and Robin Wagner, the designer, have slightly lowered the temperature of "Angels" for its second half, as befits a text in which hallucinations overwhelm any quarrelsome domestic or political reality. Much of the action takes place in a cool, dark limbo that, as lighted by Jules Fisher and flecked with jazz by the composer Anthony Davis, both captures the literal setting (largely New York City during a spring rain) and conveys the pregnant end-of-millennium mood. The roles that grow markedly in Part 2 -- Mr. Wright's agent provocateur of a nurse, Ms. Chalfant's no-nonsense yet strangely comforting matriarch and especially Mr. Grant's Joe -- are beautifully rendered. Like the impressive Mr. Mantello, Mr. Grant has an unusual knack for finding humor and shading in a character whose self-righteousness is matched only by his callousness to a partner in desperate need.
Yet the heart of the play is Prior Walter, as acted by the extraordinary Mr. Spinella. "I'm not a prophet," he protests early in Part 2. "I'm a sick, lonely man." Deserted by his lover, thin to the point of emaciation, covered with the lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma, Prior is the one who must bear the weight of the future on his slender shoulders. While Mr. Spinella looks like God's avenger in the quasi-clerical black cape and hood he wears for much of the evening, his performance is the opposite of Mr. Leibman's Cohn. He is beyond anger.
"The worst thing about being sick in America is you are booted out of the parade," Cohn says. Prior, who has an "addiction to being alive," refuses to be booted. He wants to "live past hope," he tells the angel of death. "I want more life." Appropriately, "Angels in America" is one play of the AIDS era that does not end at a memorial service but with the characters gathered in expectation, on a brilliant day, before Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. The year of this epilogue is 1990, and though Prior is now leaning on a cane like the Bolshevik of the prologue and is nearly as blind, Mr. Spinella radiates joy. "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all," he says. "The world only spins forward."
People no longer build cathedrals, as they did a thousand years ago, to greet the next millennium, but "Angels in America" both spins forward and spirals upward in its own way, for its own time. If anything, Prior's description of statuary angels like the one in the fountain honoring the Civil War dead could stand for Mr. Kushner's fabulous play: "They commemorate death, but they suggest a world without dying."
"Bye now!" cries a smiling Mr. Spinella as this great epic draws to a close, raising his long arm and throwing it back in an ecstatic wave. His indelible gesture feels less like a goodbye than a benediction, less like a final curtain than a kiss that blesses everyone in the theater with the promise of more life.
The angel finally has touched down. Six months ago "Millennium Approaches," the first part of "Angels in America," swept Broadway off its feet while leaving two of the biggest question marks in the history of the Street: What was the fate of these characters whose interwoven lives were left tantalizingly unresolved, and, in concluding their stories, would playwright Tony Kushner equal the astonishing dramatic accomplishment of "Millennium"?
To the second question, the answer is an unqualified yes: "Perestroika" is as funny, heart-breaking, poetic and knowing as "Millennium." With its top price of $ 120 for both parts, "Angels in America" becomes the most expensive Broadway ticket ever and, with the two halves clocking in at over seven hours, among the longest. Yet now it's hard to imagine one without the other, for people attending "Millennium Approaches" will find it impossible to resist seeing the play's conclusion, while anyone opting for only "Perestroika" is likely to be confused about how this amazing group of characters came together and fell apart in the first place.
That interdependence is something the producers are banking on, for at $ 3 million and counting, "Angels" has also become Broadway's most expensive non-musical production. The gamble was riskier than anyone might have imagined, for not only did the producers plan to have the
cast rehearse "Perestroika" while performing "Millennium Approaches," but they went into it knowing, when Part One opened last spring, that Part Two still needed considerable work.
While Kushner has retained the soaring spirit of "Perestroika," he and his collaborators -- notably director George C. Wolfe -- have done a masterly job of pruning, reshaping, editing and rewriting the script.
"Perestroika" begins with a variation on the comic opening and apocalyptic finale of "Millennium Approaches." Before a red scrim, "the world's oldest living Bolshevik" (Kathleen Chalfant playing one of several male roles) speaks about the coming change in the Soviet order. "Will the past release us?" he wonders, adding, "Show me the words that will reorder the world or else keep silent"-- doubtless the playwright's own credo.
The scrim drops, revealing at center stage the winged Angel (Ellen McLaughlin) who has crashed through a bedroom ceiling to announce that the AIDS-ravaged Prior Walter (Stephen Spinella) is a prophet and that the "great work" can now begin.
Downstage right, Prior's deserting lover Louis (Joe Mantello) is seducing the vaguely reluctant Joe Pitt, a judge's clerk and Roy Cohn protege. Downstage left , Joe's abandoned wife, Harper (Marcia Gay Harden), filthy and in tatters, has managed to chew through the trunk of asmall pine tree in Prospect Park near the Brooklyn home that, until recently, she and Joe, both Mormons, shared.
Over the ensuing three hours, Kushner reconfigures these pairings and a few others into a series of unlikely alliances and failed rapprochements, each of which is finally heart-rending. Along the way is some devastatingly pointed hilarity in the face of disease and betrayal, much of it at the expense of the Mormons. This includes a couple of priceless scenes involving a diorama at the Visitor's Center displaying the Mormon hegira to Utah, and the depiction of heaven as a place of beauty much like San Francisco.
The most poignant connection is made in heaven between Harper and Prior, in a brief, sad conversation about the agony of loss that endows them with unexpected strength: Prior rejects both Louis and his heavenly mandate to spread the message of "migratory cessation" to the world, while Harper, no longer in Joe's thrall, finally sets out on her own.
"I want more life," Prior declares before a gathering of angels. "I can't help myself, I do." That message -- of grabbing life in the face of sickness, desertion, even death -- courses through "Angels in America" and gives the play its powerful grounding. In an epilogue four years after the action has ended, set at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, Prior tells the audience that he's lived with AIDS for five years.
"We're not going away," he announces. "We won't die slow, secret deaths anymore." Echoing his defiance of the angels, Prior again declares, "More life!" That conclusion is tamer than the crashing finale of "Millennium Approaches." But it's also the inevitable coda to everything that has gone before and it tears right into the heart, for perhaps Kushner's most stunning accomplishment with "Angels in America" is an unashamed refusal to poison his anger with cynicism.
With a cast that has grown fiercer and more confident, Wolfe again delivers a sprawling, complex work with incomparable clarity and elegance. Spinella, Mantello, David Marshall Grant, McLaughlin, Chalfant and the mesmerizing Ron Leibman as a dying Roy Cohn have lost none of the fervor with which they attack their roles. Special mention should be made of Harden's now utterly haunting portrayal of Harper, and Wright's total inhabitation of Belize, the black queen who nurses Cohn.
Robin Wagner's settings are less abstract and more humorous than those for "Millennium," and Jules Fisher's lighting and Toni-Leslie James' costumes again add immeasurably to the atmosphere. The stagecraft has no equal on Broadway.
But of course, neither does the play. "Angels in America" is a monumental achievement, the work of a defiantly theatrical imagination that has no parallel on television or in the movies. It ennobles Broadway as no other work in recent memory has.