Re-encountering Tony Kushner’s landmark “Angels In America” after nearly twenty years, is something like coming across an old friend after a long period of non-communication. Granted, it’s been a long time, and you find your friend is still somewhat talky, at times unbearably long-winded, but getting reacquainted reminds you why you were attracted in the first place. Despite all the years that have gone by, “Angels In America” remains as vital, as literate and surprisingly MORE humane than it was when it hit Broadway in 1993. The increase in its humanity factor can be attributed to a sensational cast and extremely sensitive direction, at times startlingly so, by master director Michael Grief. Grief’s simple yet effective staging, scaled down for a much smaller stage at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, makes this production of “Angels” feel brand new, and even fresher than it felt the last time I experienced it. This time around, I saw Part 1, “Millennium Approaches” and Part 2, “Perestroika”, back to back in one day (with dinner break), and what a difference that makes. If you’re lucky enough to get tickets, and although it is pretty much sold out through the most recent extension thru Feb. 20th, you will have one of those rare chances to experience a full day of what another terrific playwright John Guare likes to refer to as “epic theater”. As I write this, Signature is about to announce another extension through the end of March, so there will still be a chance to book.
For those who never saw the original George C. Wolfe production on Broadway, or Mike Nichols’ two part film on HBO, “Angels In America” is a meditation on morality, love, ambition, loyalty, desertion and forgiveness at the height of the AIDS crisis during the reign of Ronald Reagan, and no one escapes unscathed. Politicians and judges are skewered, none more so than the infamous lawyer and closeted homosexual Roy Cohn, who, it should never be forgotten, was the instigator of the entire debacle of the McCarthy hearings and its Communist witch hunts, when he suggested to Senator Joe McCarthy there were Communists in the US Army, this after his enlisted boyfriend was transferred to a post in Alaska. It was Cohn who was ever present at those hearings, as an aide to McCarthy, constantly cajoling the senator, always whispering in his ear during actual hearings. Even after McCarthy was stopped and ruined, Cohn walked away clean, continuing to advise and confide in senators, governors and presidents, all the time denying his sexual preferences, even after being diagnosed with AIDS, which he insisted was actually liver cancer. In the original production, Ron Liebman won a Tony Award for his portrayal, in the movie, Al Pacino played Cohn and won an Emmy, but here at the tiny off-Broadway Signature, both these esteemed actors are eclipsed by the remarkable performance of theatre animal Frank Wood, himself a one time Tony winner for Warren Leight’s play, “Side Man” some years ago. Here, Wood gives us a less monstrous Roy Cohn, emphasizing his Machiavellian duplicity and his sense of privilege without eating every piece of scenery in sight. Earlier this year, Wood was stunning in the beautiful Bruce Norris play, “Clybourne Park”, and now, less than six months later, he astonishes us again in the sort of performance that should be taped and played for all students of the craft of acting, who should be told, “Here-when you can do this, you can call yourself an actor”. It’s a performance to cherish and remember.
The other members of the cast bear mentioning as well, for they are a terrific ensemble. There is Zachary Quinto, who played Mr. Spock in the last reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise, agonizing in the difficult role of Louis, who leaves his partner Prior when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; playing opposite Christian Borle, heartbreaking as the ex-boyfriend. Robin Bartlett, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Robin Weigert give ample support, and Billy Porter is a standout as Cohn’s serpent-tongued nurse Belize. But it is Frank Wood who leaves the most indelible impression as the acid-dipped Cohn. He achieves the near-impossible-he breathes humanity into a man who was, by all accounts, less than human.
On Broadway, at the Belasco Theatre, there is a less than perfect musical version of Pedro Almodovar’s film, “Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown”, and while the show has its unsolvable problems with book and staging, it also has two performances that should not be missed. The first is the delightful Danny Burstein, fresh from his co-starring role in Lincoln Center’s wonderful recent production of “South Pacific”, who steals every scene he appears in as a Madrid cabbie with more than sightseeing on his mind. His solo number, “Madrid” is one of the musical’s standout numbers. The other performance is the luscious, over the top one given by the always delightful Laura Benanti, here playing a ditzy model who happens to be sleeping with a terrorist. Her big number, “Model Behavior” is an unalloyed, smash bang delight. I’ve come to the conclusion Laura Benanti is an actress who can do no wrong. She’s stolen “Gypsy” out from under Patti LuPone, taken Christopher Durang’s crazy dialogue and made it her own as though she’d been playing farce all her career, and played period opposite Michael Cerveris on Broadway. I think it’s time someone take this wonderful actress and give her a show to call her own-something like Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” or Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play about the Egyptian queen. Now, what a fabulous Shakespeare In The Park at the Delacorte that would make. Oskar Eustis, are you listening?