Nov 27, 2010


I had a nosebleed seat at a matinee of Millennium Approaches back in the sweltering summer of 1994, which sufficiently hooked me that I rushed afterwards to grab a standing-room ticket for that night's performance of Perestroika. To call that day a high point in my theatergoing experience would be an understatement. I was swept away by Tony Kushner's range, wit, imagination, craft, and fierce moral vision, and by director George C. Wolfe's uncannily surehanded production. Subsequent readings of the play impressed me further. Though I actually saw F. Murray Abraham rather than Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn, I cherish an unrelated interview I did with Leibman around that time in which he attributed the plays' success as much to their Jewish rhythms as to their gay essence. I embraced it all, in any case, and felt by evening's end that I could have stood for four more hours.

So why was the Signature Theater's intimate new Angels revival, for which I had a good and comfortable seat throughout a similar all-day marathon last week, so hard on my butt and on my soul? I can't put my finger on any one problem, except to say that so much of it felt queasy and sub-par, and with a work of this scope and ambition, half-measures are deadly. Like many critics, I was struck by Zachary Quinto's Louis and Bill Heck's Joe (though not so much by their faltering chemistry); the rest of the cast, to a person, felt either miscast or misdirected or both. I never felt that director Michael Greif decided how to handle the plays' unclassifiable blend of reality and fantasy, and most of all I missed the humor. The comic rhythms just didn't feel tight; this is also a problem I had with the heavy-spirited HBO miniseries, in which Justin Kirk's somber, strapping Prior and Al Pacino's unsmiling Roy Cohn almost invariably squashed the lacerating comedy both of these AIDS-stricken characters find in their extremity; at the Signature, I felt much the same about Christian Borle's play-acty Prior and Frank Wood's dispirited Cohn.

If I had reviewed the show, I feel that my take would have been closest to Charles McNulty's. Though I think I can still discern a great American play for the ages in there, the Signature version made me worry that between it and the HBO movie, Angels in America is not getting the productions it deserves--the kind of productions that will ensure its reintroduction to new generations of theater lovers who will pay their last dollar to stand in the back of the house.


Charlene said...

It's too bad you didn't see the production last year in Washington, DC, produced by Forum Theatre. It was superb. It was my first time seeing either play live and the productions made you see why Kushner's plays are a great work of the American theatre.

David Cote said...

Justin Kirk somber? Wow, I totally didn't get that from the HBO version, which might have been pompous at times, but retained (for me) a good deal of the humor. As for this revival, it's underwhelming, but doesn't fatally diminish the work's cumulative impact. Of course, I wish a great play didn't have to struggle under a wet blanket of a production.