Inspired partly by the success of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a play steeped in the politics and the personal of the ongoing AIDS crisis, and partly by a dream playwright Tony Kushner once had of a dancer he knew, lying on his sickbed while an angel crashed through his ceiling, Angels in America has a backstory as sprawling and epic as the play itself.
Actually two plays in repertory — Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, each running around three and a half hours — Angels in America tackles, among other themes, AIDS, progress vs. providence, the fickle twists of love, loyalty, and abandonment, and the spark of the divine that might be found in even the most venal of hosts. For theatergoers, it is high on most bucket lists of “must sees," and a long-anticipated revival currently at Berkeley Rep, under the direction of longtime Tony Kushner champion Tony Taccone, does not disappoint.
In fact, Kushner's script is eerily prescient in form as well as content, as scene after scene unfurls in rapid succession, almost as a mini-series, which makes the seven-hour marathon (most Saturdays and assorted other dates, through July 22) feel like that most modern of indulgences, the binge-watch.
In terms of dialogue, outside of the fact that Ronald Reagan is frequently name-checked, many of the conversations feel like the ones you’ll overhear today in urban coffee shops across the United States, from real talk about race relations and white privilege to support for Palestinians to a gay man’s questioning whether or not their “girl talk” is an act of misogyny. It speaks strongly to Kushner’s ability to read between the lines of American vernacular history in order to have created this instantly recognizable and resonant world that stands the test of time, angels and all.
True, it takes the Angel (double-cast with Francesca Faridany and Lisa Ramirez) up until the final moments of Millenium Approaches to crash through the ceiling of AIDS-stricken Prior Walter (Randy Harrison), a former drag performer and the descendant of a line of prior Prior Walters stretching back to the Bayeux Tapestry. But by that point, references to the divine have already abounded: high-strung housewife Harper (Bethany Jillard) observes that the ozone layer is like a “spherical net” of “guardian angels”; Prior’s lover Louis (Benjamin T. Ismail) asserts that justice is like God, “a confusing vastness”; and closeted Mormon Joe (Danny Binstock) reveals that he frequently fantasizes about wrestling an angel, “a beautiful man,” a la Jacob in a gay wilderness.
More than a flighty metaphor, the Angel (portrayed with sonorous gravity by Francesca Faridany when I saw it) arrives as a representative from a politburo of heavenly hosts, charging Prior with the task of encouraging humanity to put the brakes on, so to speak, and slow their forward motion.
“You do not advance, you only trample,” she chides, and even Prior has to admit she has a point. But not for nothing has humanity been imbued by the capacity to choose, to move, and to create, and though he must pay a visit to the “Permanent Emergency Council” in heaven to demand they release him from his role as reluctant prophet, he refuses to stand still and accept a destiny thrust upon him.
Because you can’t divorce the ugly specter of regressive political machinations from the turbulent history of AIDS in America, one of the play’s major characters is Roy Cohn — who, among other dire actions, helped engineer the so-called “Lavender Scare” of the early 1950s, when the State Department and other branches of the federal government were purged of accused homosexuals. Played by Stephen Spinella, who played the role of Prior Walter in Angels' original Broadway run, Cohn is a gleefully unrepentant bully, incapable of taking his own AIDS diagnosis lying down, even when literally bedridden by it. Strangely, it’s Cohn's flagrantly immoral compass that sits at the heart of Angels, a certain kind of old guard being left behind by a progress it can’t begin to comprehend, nor has any interest in trying.
Among the solid cast, certain moments stand out more than individual performances, which is as it should be in extravagant ensemble work such as this. The self-medicated Harper wandering through the Antarctica of her mind; the tenderness with which Louis teaches Joe about the sensual possibilities of scent; Caldwell Tidicue (a.k.a. Bob the Drag Queen) as night nurse and “ex-ex” drag queen Belize, clapping back at both a guilt-riddled but still racist Louis and a disease-riddled but still abusive Cohn; Prior’s occasionally manic determination to unravel the metaphysical implications of the hand he’s been dealt; Carmen Roman as a somewhat dour Ethel Rosenberg, reciting the Kaddish over the man who made sure she’d sat in the electric chair for treason.
The scenic design and special effects (by Takeshi Kata and Jeremy Chernick, respectively) meld perfectly with the lighting (Jennifer Schreiver) and projections (Alexander V. Nichols), creating entire city blocks with a few well-placed beams of light, a projected backdrop, and a spare piece or two of furniture. Jake Rodriguez’ sound design keeps the energy in the room aloft, a crucial function.
Although Angels is too complex and too expansive a play from which to distill a single message, what audiences can expect is an impressive treatise on the implications and consequences of “freedom,” and an exploration of that most daunting expression of it: the human capacity for love. As much of an improbability as the America that inspired it, Angels in America is a play that succeeds on its own excess.
If you were wondering where your next binge-watch might come from, wonder no more.
'Angels in America' runs through July 22 at Berkeley Rep. Details here.