Having since been established as a modern classic in the theatrical canon, the plays now are receiving their first New York revivals in a superb, two-part production — running nearly seven hours — by the Signature Theatre Company. It already is nearly sold out its for its run.
For the few of you unfamiliar with the work from its stage incarnations or the subsequent HBO film adaptation, it is set in the mid-1980s Reagan era just as the AIDS epidemic was fully emerging as a national scourge. Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” it revolves around various intertwined characters somehow affected by the crisis, including the real-life figure of notorious lawyer Roy Cohn (Frank Wood).
Among those who prominently figure in the complex story line are Prior Walter (Christian Borle), a young AIDS-afflicted man; his frightened lover, Louis (Zachary Quinto), who promptly leaves him; Joe Pitt (Bill Heck), a closeted Mormon lawyer working with Cohn who becomes romantically involved with Louis; Harper (Zoe Kazan), Joe’s innocent wife who finds herself adrift when he leaves her; Hannah (Robin Bartlett), Joe’s mother, who heads to New York out of concern for her son; and Belize (Billy Porter), Prior’s friend, a sassy nurse who finds herself caring for the deathly ill Cohn.
Oh, and there is the Angel (Robin Weigart), who periodically appears to Prior in his fevered dreams, most famously at the end of the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” to portentously announce: “Greetings prophet. The Great work begins. The messenger has arrived.”
Combining sharp-edge, darkly comic realism with frequently surreal, Brechtian stylization, the plays succeed magnificently as a wide-ranging social and political portrait of a defining era in this country’s history and a beautifully intimate, character-driven drama.
Presented under far more modest circumstances than the lavishly staged original Broadway production, this revival, superbly directed by Michael Greif, nonetheless loses nothing in terms of theatrical or emotional impact. Indeed, the greater intimacy provided by the smaller space allows us to become even more closely attuned to the works’ subtler elements.
The ensemble is for the most part absolutely first-rate, with Quinto — making his New York stage debut after his successful turn as Mr. Spock in the hit “Star Trek” reboot — displaying admirable career courage with his emotionally devastating turn as the guilt-ridden, promiscuous Louis. Wood is a revelation as Cohn, exhibiting a fierce intensity — comic and malevolent — that is the polar opposite of his Tony-winning turn in “Side Man.” Borle is deeply moving as the physically ravaged and emotionally wounded Prior, and Heck provides intriguing levels of shading to the conflicted Joe. Bartlett shines in multiple roles, especially as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who appears to haunt her former nemesis.
Only Kazan is a relative disappointment, with the young actress not succeeding in effectively conveying her character’s emotional and frequently hallucinatory turmoil.
There’s no denying that the plays can feel overlong and overwritten at times. (There’s a lengthy scene late in the second part, “Perestroika,” depicting a debate in heaven, which is particularly deadly.) But this wonderfully staged and acted revival provides ample evidence, if any was needed, that “Angels” is as immediate and vital now as it was nearly two decades ago.
Venue: Peter Norton Space, New York (Through Feb. 20)
Presented by: Signature Theatre Company
Cast: Robin Bartlett, Christian Borle, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Billy Porter, Zachary Quinto, Robin Weigert, Frank Wood
Playwright: Tony Kushner
Director: Michael Greif
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Projection designer: Wendall K. Harrington
Music: Michael Friedman, Chris Miller