Angels in America returned to Broadway again after dazzling audiences in the 1990s. This time it is a production by The National Theater, who put on a new spin on Tony Kushner’s wonderful 1993 epic story, which has won a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, an Olivier Award, an Emmy and the National Medal of Arts for its author. The revival of the 25-year-old play is a reflection on Kushner’s thoughts about religion, politics, sex, morality and the state of the environment – to name just a few things. It’s all viewed through the lens of the 1980s AIDS crisis and stars Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in the lead roles.
The production by Helmer Marianne Elliott takes a different approach to Kushner’s work by balancing the realistic style of the early scenes of domesticity with fantastic surrealism of later dream sequences. On the stage, you see people living lives that are about to be forever impacted by dramatic changes. Nathan Lane plays Roy M. Cohn, a famous lawyer, who is dealing with an upset client on the phone while also charming his visitor, Joseph Pitt, played by Lee Pace, a devout Mormon and clerk at a Federal court justice office.
At home, Joseph’s wife, Harper (played by Denise Gough), is reflecting on the forthcoming apocalypse. Going visibly insane, she drives Joe out of the house to go on long walks at night, attracting the attention of young men all the while. The story has a wide variety of characters, including brusque New Yorkers with a sharp sense of humor, quiet, docile creatures who aren’t sure what their role in life should be and everything in between. When characters start learning that they themselves, or their partners, have been diagnosed with AIDS, the plague is lined up against other worries of our own times, including an autocratic president, school massacres, threats of nuclear war and global warming.
The two-part play premiered in 1991 and the Broadway opening was in 1993. It’s a very complex and metaphorical examination of AIDS and homosexuality in America during the 1980s and some of the characters are actually angels, or supernatural beings, while others are ghosts. The two parts of the play, entitled Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, are separately presentable though in the current production they appear together.
The current revival of Angels in America has received 11 Tony Award nominations, more than any other play in history. Included among the nominations is a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for Andrew Garfield, Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Nathan Lane and Tony Awards for Best Featured Actress in a Play for both Susan Brown and Denise Gough. The play also won the 2018 Outer Critics Circle Awards.
The play has gained incredible praise from critics as well as from within the world of theater. Its dialogue and exploration of social issues have set a new tenor in the theater world, causing the New York Times to write that “Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years.” Metro Weekly called it one of the most important pieces of theater to come out of the late 20th century. The frank treatment of homosexuality and AIDS made the play controversial among conservative and religious groups but it’s popularity has withstood the test of time.
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