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October 11, 2010

Robin Weigert and Christian Borle Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

On Friday and Saturday, I attended preview performances of Signature Theater Company’s much anticipated and quickly sold out and extended revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both parts will open at roughly the same time at the end of this month in New York, and I jumped at the chance to see the show, though it is still in previews. One of the biggest questions in my head going in was just how relevant this seven hours of theater over two sittings would be like after more than 25 years when the action it describes takes place. The events Kushner describes are still open wounds, but let’s face it, there have been more than a couple major catastrophes financial and otherwise in this city and this world since the mid-1980s. But then I review the news services here this very weekend in this very city and am immediately reminded of the ways in which little has changed when gay men are beaten here for the simple reason of their existence. Heck, bigotry toward homosexuals wrapped in a shroud of faith is a political platform for some candidates in New York this season. No wonder the tickets for this show vanished so quickly. Despite all that has changed for the better, Angels in America couldn’t be more urgent and incendiary today.

Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

Of course, Kushner’s landmark play is about so much more than homophobia and, granted, the HIV/AIDS crisis does not have the same shape now that it had then. One of the works greatest strengths is the complicated and multi-layered way it takes on topics from faith and religion to American identity. And even at this arguable early stage, the Signature Theater production handles these quite well. The very good ensemble cast is directed by Michael Grief, best known in New York for his work on musicals such as Next to Normal, Grey Gardens, and Rent. But if you think this Angels in America is going to turn into some kind of “Springtime for Hitler”, think again. He manages to keep the magical realism in the play real enough and never lets things get too bogged down in more maudlin fantasy.

Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

That is not to say that I thought everything was in perfect shape for an opening. There was still work to be done particularly on the first few scenes of Part I. Some of the performances haven’t completely gelled yet in terms of consistency throughout the entire piece. And there are lots of small technical and timing issues that have yet to be completely attended to. But that is to be expected at this stage. What is far more important is that these performances sweep you up and grab you emotionally already. After seven hours I didn’t want it to end despite my familiarity with the piece on stages and the Mike Nichols film. The set design is simple with a large thin pale curtain used for video projections, which is pulled back to reveal a bifurcated set with two rotating halves to rapidly change between scenes, provide logical space for action that plays out in two different spaces simultaneously. It's direct and attractive.

Robin Bartlett and Frank Wood Photo: Joan Marcus/Signature Theater 2010

I would be remiss not to mention the actors in the cast. Louis is played by Zachary Quinto, Prior by Christian Borle, Belize by Billy Porter, and Joe Pitt by Bill Heck. All four were quite convincing in both comic and dramatic passages. Best of all, while all are physically attractive, the emphasis was away from complete hardbodies considering that most all of them get some time naked on stage. Frank Wood is Roy Cohn to Robin Bartlett’s Emma Goldberg and Hannah Pitt. Bartlett is as impressive in her male characters as her female ones. Robin Weigert is the angel and Zoe Kazan plays Harper. Kazan goes for a more blatantly insane Harper in my opinion than others, with the anger and rage as easily on display as the anxiety and neurosis. All of the cast were strong.

But honestly, given the cultural moment in this country, this production could be crap and it would still be worth seeing. Luckily it is quite far from crap and by opening I imagine it will be superb. So much has changed, but so little has as well. All these years and still, the great work begins.



I made a point of seeing the very first preview of the completed two part Angels in America at the Mark Taper Forum 25 years ago. I knew I was witnessing something historic at the time. Glad to see it still packs a punch. A truly great play belongs to no particular time period nor only one age.
Gotta say I was incredibly disappointed with this production. I saw both parts the weekend of 10/15. I found the script still relevant but thought the direction and performances were terrible. Quinto never makes Louis emotionally accessible or at all sympathetic. Borle minces about like a straight man playing guy. Wood as Cohn swallows the last quarter of every line he has. Kazan turns Harper into a cloying Harpie and completely misses the longing and sympathetic need that should radiate from her character (not to mention she is a terrible focus puller in moments that are not hers). Porter's Belize was ok, but always felt a but stilted to me. I liked Joe, Hannah and the angel. And the staging. . .some of the split scenes were a little too cutesy with the blocking-having the actors make extreme crosses so the scenes would intermingle visually. The result diluted the text instead of enhancing it.
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