Who are the actual angels in Tony Kushner’s epic masterpiece Angels in America? The winged creatures that show up in the course of the work’s seven hours and two parts are more like spiritual bureaucrats, albeit majestic and fearsome ones.
Those who display qualities that we associate with angels – compassion, vision, and so forth – go by the name of prophet or ghost: the prophetic AIDS sufferer Prior Walter (Christian Borle), the ghost of executed American communist Ethel Rosenberg (Robin Bartlett). Perhaps the most angelic of all are the plays most simply human characters: nurse and sometime drag queen Belize (Billy Porter) and hard-nosed Mormon housewife Hannah (Bartlett again). The underlying message of Angels, underpinning its explicit cry for “more life,” is the idea that if we are looking for angels, perhaps the best place to look is the mirror – at least on our better days we are our own “better angels.”
Not that Kushner would ever be be content with a single message or theme! Ranging from earth to heaven, from the personal/political to the visionary/supernatural – and often blurring the edges of all of the above – Angels in America explores what it means to love, to be just, to be (but also to change) who you are. It is set in late 1985 and early 1986, as the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay population and Ronald Reagan has been elected to a second term in the White House.
In director Michael Greif’s lean yet still expansive revival, the emphasis is on the play’s less angelic elements. Frank Wood gives a powerfully reptilian performance as the infamously closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, chillingly capturing Cohn’s lip-smacking rapaciousness. But it is Zachary Quinto’s astonishing portrayal of Prior’s terror-stricken ex-boyfriend Louis that forms the emotional center of this production.
Louis is the character with the biggest arc, going from cravenly abandoning Prior to courageously taking a stand against the forces arrayed against him, from a Reaganite lover to his own overwhelming guilt and fear. Quinto skillfully navigates every twist of this complicated character, smartly emphasizing his more positive, brazen and seductive qualities. Borle gives a passionate and intelligent performance as Prior, who is more properly the story’s central character, but doesn’t quite match up to Quinto’s bracing emotional honesty.
This is rightly considered one of the greatest American plays of the last century, and this production absolutely does right by it. Get a ticket if you can.
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