Thursday, October 18, 2012

I saw the first part of Tony Kushner’s great Angels in America, this part subtitled Millennium Approaches, at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater last Saturday & could see, almost instantly, why it has set box-office records, been nominated for a slew of Barrymore Awards – the Philadelphia regional equivalent of Tonys – and why it’s the favorite to win most of them. For a piece of theater with such a great reputation – the play is often treated as the most significant piece of narrative theater since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf – it’s rarely performed. The reason is obvious enough – the play is in two parts that add up to more than six hours of performance, even tho it is written be played by just eight actors, as it is here. There is also the not inconsiderable problem of persuading people to come back for a second half more or less either on the same day or not much more than one week apart, which will put the show over the splurge threshold for a lot of families. It’s not a splurge, it’s an investment.

It must also be grueling for the actors themselves, having to be in two halves of the same play simultaneously, particularly ones as physically & emotionally demanding as Angels. At least three of the eight in the Wilma’s cast are veterans of People’s Light Theatre Company of Malvern, PA, one of the few great suburban repertory theaters in America. The key part of Roy Cohn is played by Stephen Novelli, whom I’ve seen in maybe a dozen People’s Light productions & imagine I’d recognize on the street any day of the week, but whom I did not identify until the second hour into the play, even in reasonably modern garb with minimal make-up, he is so completely not himself in the role of the conniving, self-serving megalomaniac reactionary gargoyle who takes credit for the execution of Ethel Rosenberg & has one of the more elaborate – albeit entirely political – rationales for being in the closet in the early 1980s.

The play itself is fairly straightforward, considering that it is constructed more as though it were a symphony than a story as such. There are three core sets of characters – Joe & Harper, a young Mormon lawyer who is fighting his desire to be on the down-low & his valium-guzzling, borderline psychotic wife; Louis & Prior, a stereotypical gay couple, one Jewish, the other from an old Wasp family, who are quickly torn asunder by Prior’s battle with AIDS & Louis’ fear of sickness; and Cohn’s attempt to recruit Joe into the Justice Department so that he can thwart the New York bar’s attempt to disbar Cohn for embezzling from a client, while at the same time trying to pass off his own case of AIDS as liver cancer. Add to the mix two other key characters, Joe’s no-nonsense mother & Belize, a previous boyfriend of Prior who stands by him when his “true love” can’t & who – in the part I haven’t seen yet – is about to become Cohn’s nurse, plus a few hallucinatory characters (one being the eponymous angel who comes literally crashing through the rafters in the first play’s concluding scene) & you have the total set-up.

Without the Cohn character, this play would not work, or at least not with much more depth than Armistead Maupin’s pre-AIDS serial novels, Tales of the City, constructed around somewhat idealized stereotypical characters as Harper & Joe, Louis & Prior. But Cohn gives the play an entirely different dimension – bringing in Ethel Rosenberg, for example, hinting at the role of a closeted network of conservatives from the McCarthy era onward. In contrast with all of the younger characters, he is the essence of cynical realpolitik – he’d be just fine with the Koch Brothers attempts to sabotage American electoral democracy. In the second part of the play, Cohn’s pall of historical evil is leavened by Hannah, Joe’s Mormon mother who brings in her own realpolitik of family love not elsewhere in much evidence in this play, but by the end of Millennium Approaches that hasn’t yet happened.

In the 2003 HBO adaptation of the play for TV, Al Pacino plays the role of Cohn that Henry Goodman pioneered on Broadway & it’s one of Pacino’s best pieces of work in a career of tremendous roles. Novelli plays Cohn smaller than Pacino – Pacino never plays anyone small – which makes Cohn’s manipulations seem more self-serving, less demonic. In a lot of ways, it’s a better strategy for the play overall, in that it enables the focus not to be just about the actor playing Cohn. The HBO two-parter half solved that problem by doling out some of the minor parts to additional actors (it had a total cast of 13, ten in serious roles) so that the result also became about the multiple roles being portrayed by Meryl Streep. The Wilma production is far less about the actors & more about the content of the script.

The script itself has aged. AIDS in 2012 is something different, politically as well as medically, than it was in 2003 or 1992, tho it has by no means either gone away or “been solved.” But rather than seeming dated, which might have been the case in the hands of a lesser director than Blanka Zizka, this passage of time & historical perspective comes across in the Wilma production as a layer of pathos, a dimension of fate that adds to, rather than detracts from, the whole.

It’s hard for me to know how a younger audience might view this play – I not only remember the hoopla around the Rosenberg executions from my own childhood, I’ve met both of their sons, one of whom preceded me on the Socialist Review staff. I’ve long since lost track of how many dozens of friends & acquaintances were killed by AIDS. It devastated entire art forms, such as modern dance, which is still recovering from the loss of a generation of dancers & choreographers. It’s hard for me to grok, certainly, that Harvey Milk was murdered in 1978 without having ever heard of the disease. But it is impossible for me to view this play without thinking of all these things & without being haunted by memories of Davy Doyle, Ed Mock, Dick Gamble, Leland Hickman, Tim Dlugos, Joe Brainard & so many, many others.

I’m going back later this week to see the second part, subtitled Perestroika. Because I’ve been on the road a lot of late, my tickets were what was available – the very first row on the first night, the very last row for part dos. The Wilma is a cozy little theater, done it would seem by the same architect who designed the Joyce in New York, so I don’t mind. I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I don’t see it again a decade or two hence (when I shall be quite up there in years). Angels is a project that at least approaches the scale of a Lear or Macbeth, something that deserves to be seen every so often just to see how it changes, and how you’ve changed, over the course of time.