Despite what Austin Powers might have decreed, the 1980′s wasn’t just a gas shortage and A Flock of Seagulls. Our nostalgic 80′s nights filled with hairspray and neon leggings are all well and good, but they completely ignore the cocaine dusted reality of the decade, the Tammi Faye Baker neo-conservative wet-dream that infested our great nation with our cellophane president and a negative wave of hairstyles that would affect people to this day. The Tea Party might be, well, aggressive, to say the least, but they are hardly innovative. Though of course, no one could ever accuse politics in the United States of innovation.
Of course, despite the optimism of the conservative party, the rest of us who can vaguely remember the 80′s (or know how history works) will remember that this decade marked a time of growing dread, of understanding just how negative the human race has turned out to be. This country was just starting to understand how deeply their actions were effecting the environment, foreign policy, the world at large, and of course, the understanding of a global epidemic, AIDS, was just beginning. In times of disaster, people tend to look for answers in that which is beyond themselves, in the heavens above or wherever one thinks a deity might reside. The last time a wide-scale plague swept the planet it came on the backs of rats (and the fleas on the rats and the DNA in the fleas and so on and so forth). This time, it comes in a much more insidious form, through the delight of carnal relations, not medieval christians sleeping with their pigs to keep warm (which was, of course, why Jews rarely contracted the disease, sleeping with the livestock is hardly kosher. Of course, many Jews were accused of witchcraft because they remained healthy and were killed by mobs of angry Christians. You just can’t win with some people…). But in either case, the question is always, Why, God, why? And the answer? Well, that really depends, now, doesn’t it.
But answers aren’t really the point of Tony Kushner’s epic masterwork Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, which is currently running at the Wilma Theater. For one thing, if you got everything you needed from part one, who would stick around for perestroika, playing this fall? Create the demand and you can manage the supply. But in less cynical terms, Kushner isn’t really interested in tying everything up neatly, slapping some band aids on the problem and calling it a day. In fact, this play, this story, is about fracturing, it starts out with things settled, people in relationships, paired, certain and sure, and it ends with a world off its axis, people divided, broken, marooned from each other. And yet it revolves, as all things do, around New York, using the metropolis of the 1980′s, dirty, liberal, radical and haunted with the dreams of the 60′s, as a “melting pot where nothing melts”. It’s self-contained, yet universal. It’s deeply specific, but timeless. It’s epic, in the best sense of the word. And the Wilma’s production more than gives this magnificent play its due. It’s rare that three and a half hours of theater leaves you wanting more.
Scorning the “great man” theory of history (and, frankly, drama, because just how many plays revolve around one white guy? Take your time, count it out, I’ll wait), Kusher’s play is truly an ensemble drama. There is Louis (Benjamin Pelteson) and Prior (Aubrey Decker), a Jew and a WASP who have, against all odds, found each other. There is Joe (Luigi Sottile) and Harper (Kate Czajkowski) , a pair of small town kids just trying to make it in the big city. There’s Roy Cohen(Stephen Novelli), lawyer, statesman, complete and utter schmuck. There’s Belize (James Ijames), a quick-witted queen with the insight of a guru. There’s Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Scanlon) a Mormon leaving the world of the latter day saints for a trip to the other city of sin. And there’s an angel sent by God (Maia DeSanti) to start the great work. So really, something for everyone. These characters (and several more, all played by various members of the cast) paint a picture of a bruised and battered America, a country with an imminent “plague” on more than one level, ignoring its problems while looking to the future with hope. Well, some people are looking to it with hope, like Joe, who believes in God, Ronald Reagan, and praying away the gay (in that order). But other people feel a sense of dread as they peer into the glass to read what is to come. Will it be destruction, death, the end of days? Or just a screwed-up environment, a global epidemic and a score of social problems whose ugly heads rear even today (Don’t Say Gay, anyone?) Does that mean, however, that there is no hope?
Well certainly there is in this production, sharply directed by Blanka Zizka and stunningly acted by this spectacular cast. In Matt Saunder’s stark and simple set, a world of white paint and folding chairs, these stories unfold under the harsh lights of (Russel H. Champa) plot, revealing truths and deceptions which have no place to hide in this bare landscape. One wouldn’t think such a clearly theatrical and yet utterly un-opulant set would work, but it does, and gorgeously. The simple space becomes elegant in some moments, unforgiving in the next. Ironically enough, the only place this world of white doesn’t really work is the scene that takes place in Antarctica. Perhaps literalism has no place in this piece. Oana Botez’ designs are fine, appropriate and well put together, though the men’s suits could always be boxier to drive that point about 1985 home. But Christopher Colucci’s sound has no such missteps, its luscious and mesmerizing and intoxicating and yet, somehow, a call to arms.
One could, and in fact, people have, spoken at length about this play. Essays have and will be written about its significance both nationally and globally, its place in the American Cannon, it’s meaning and it’s subject matter. So instead of discussing the content of the piece, which one could do ad nauseum, I will instead address the way this cast deals with that content. After all, it’s all about people, in the end, despite all those national themes. Like all religious tales, this is one of light and dark, of heroes and villains and all the sins that take us from good to bad (and all that lives in between). On the clear side of light we have Joe, in a powerful performance by Sottile which is formal and frank, earnest and strong, a clear picture of a tortured and repressed man seeking good, seeking God, in the face of his own spiritual failings (as he sees them). And we also have Prior, the undisputed hero of the story, and by far the easiest character to like. Self deprecating and charming, but clearly grappling to deal with ending one’s life at 30, Deeker is fantastic. We love him, we feel for him, we want to get a drink and talk about Judy Garland films and sex tips. Also on the side of what is good and right are their own myriad ways, Ijames’ fantastic Belize, Scallen’s sensitive and achingly strong Hannah, and DeSanti’s no-nonsense nurse. And then we have the villains, well, villain. Because Novelli’s Cohen is disgusting and magnificent; it’s a masterful performance from an actor who takes control of every scene with ease and drives the play like a train. And we hate him, even as we pity him, we despise what he has chosen to be even as we see that he feels like there are no choices. So maybe there is no black in this play, just some very dark shades of gray.
But in the middle of the spectrum we have Harper and Louis, probably the two most difficult characters of the piece to perform. They are, of course, probably the best written characters as well. Kushner gives us so much on the page with these two individuals that it can be very difficult for any actor to execute them well. Harper is hard because she’s quietly going insane, her back story is dark and murky and filled with demons, and she’s addicted to Valium. Oh, yes, and she’s leaving her gay Mormon husband for an imaginary trip to Antarctica. Louis is hard because he’s a schmuck wrapped in the mind of a desperate liberal who keeps getting stuck up his own ass. Oh, yes, and he is leaving his dying partner in a pit of his own filth. They are both leaving the people they love because they couldn’t possibly stay, they are both escape artists to some degree. Of course, Harper gets some leniency because of her insanity. but Louis is probably the hardest character to love because he is the one we fear we are most like. We can scoff at Roy’s bigotry and smile at Joe’s naivety, but the harsh truths of Louis and his all too human failings are hard to witness without wincing.
And between Czajkowski and Peltson, Peltson does the most with the least likable role. He’s snappy, funny, deeply pained and virulent with self-hatred, he’s hard to watch and he’s hard to turn away from. We can see why Prior would love him, why Belize would scorn him, and why Joe would find himself infatuated with this mouthy awkward Jew, he’s defiant in theory and cowardly in practice, he’s what we all are on the inside even though none of us want to be. We would like to think, and maybe it’s true, that when the people around us start falling apart at the seams, we would stay, we would be strong, we would know what to do and we would do it well. But most of us in our darkest hours know that if it ever came down to it, well, the survival instinct is strong, and true altruism has yet to be found in the natural world by science. We would love to hate Louis, in the same way we enjoy, to some extent, hating Roy, but we can’t. And Peltson’s performance certainly doesn’t make it possible.
Czajkowski, on the other hand, takes Harper in a direction that makes her hard to love. Frantic and tortured, with her eyes always on some distant point, she is clearly working to portray this troubled woman, but the sedated focus of the role, heavy with Valium and yet suffused with essential understandings and constant “thresholds of revelation” (an ability neither Harper nor Prior are ever able to shake) is missing from this performance. It’s still powerful, because the text is so powerful, and because Czajkowski is a powerful performer, but it’s missing the core, the essence that keeps it moving, searching out a journey beyond the drabness of New York, into an icy dreamworld of illusion and willful delusion.
There is no real way to conclude a discussion about this play because the play itself does not conclude with a conclusion, but a new beginning. It’s all very Steven Spielberg. So in brief summation, but still waiting with bated breath for the second installment of this story, I will say that this production is epic, which befits an epic piece of theater, an epic story, an epic experience. No story is flawless, no production is flawless, but this is still a show that must be seen, one that demands and respects it’s audience, a play that honors and glorifies the act of making theater, of telling stories on a stage and having them mean more to us then life itself. It’s more relevant now then it’s ever been, and it ought to be seen.