Theater Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES (Arena Stage in D.C.)

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by P. Kubicks on April 9, 2023

in Theater-D.C.,Theater-Regional

AN ANGELIC PRODUCTION

Arena Stage’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches begins with the Angel (rapturous Billie Krishawn) grooming a sand-swept stage into a giant spiral. As soon as her zen garden is complete, Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz (stoic Susan Rome) sinks his foot into the stage, telling the story of the emigration of Jews to America while he breaks the ground, ruining the Angel’s design.

The Angel’s stage is beautiful. But during the three-hour-thirty-minute play, Tony Kushner’s characters dance, run, roll, swim, sing, writhe, dig, strut, and ruin the Angel’s evermore beautiful designs. I have seen no better or more original production of Angels in America than the one at Arena Stage, directed by János Szász. Go.

Billie Krishawn (The Angel)

Now over 30 years old, Angels still feels brand new. That’s partly because America has aged so poorly. Thus, New York City in 1987 feels all too familiar: there’s a plague; world-shattering climate concerns; an ascendant, fascist, and post-truth political right; and an apocalyptic national mood. But the core parable about how humans change and fall apart, personally, interpersonally, spiritually, and politically, transcends any particular political moment. And what a treat it is to see a production that emphasizes that core at every turn – the excellent work of Dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoë shines through.

Susan Rome (Rabbi), Nick Westrate (Prior), Michael Kevin Darnall (Louis)

For those unfamiliar with Angels, the plot is deceptively simple: two couples, one gay and one Mormon, fall apart. But it’s also spectacularly convoluted:

  • Prior Walter’s (Nick Westrate) new Kaposi sarcoma lesions reveal that his wrestle with AIDS may be reaching a point of no return.

  • Prior’s partner, Louis Ironson (Michael Kevin Darnall), reacts poorly, challenging Louis’s conception as a responsible, morally righteous, progressive gay Jew.

  • Harper Pitt’s (Deborah Ann Woll) Valium addiction, long at odds with the Mormon faith she was raised in, causes her to “hallucinate” apocalyptic visions of environmental collapse.

  • Her husband, Joe Pitt, (John Austin) struggles with secret sexual desires that are in tension with his faith; his day job as a Reaganite Republican law clerk; and his friendship with “polestar of human evil” Roy Cohn (who you might know as Donald Trump’s former lawyer).

  • Mr. Cohn (Edward Gero) is being investigated for borrowing a client’s money, threatening his license to practice law.

  • Belize, (Justin Weaks) a night nurse treating HIV patients, watches the plague that dominates his professional and personal life ravage his best friend.

  • A maybe-real-maybe-hallucinatory Angel (Krishawn) keeps showing up, a harbinger of apocalypse or salvation (maybe both?) and the breaking open of history (whatever that means).

As written, Angels is almost a Shakespearean comedy-in-reverse – a melodrama that starts in ordered reality and breaks down into a philosophical fever dream. But Szász never bothers with realism, opting instead for an expressionist opera. His Angels never disintegrates into fantasia — it is nothing but fantasia. It’s a fascinating and effective choice that illuminates new facets in the text:

John Austin (Joe Pitt) and Deborah Ann Woll (Harper Pitt)

Echoing Harper’s observation that “people are like planets,” characters orbit one another in the round, visualizing the constantly-shifting power dynamics of each relationship. Prior and Louis are coequal at the start; Joe fully orbits Roy Cohn. But Szász’s boldest choice is to make the Angel a near-constant presence, rather than a one-time apparition. She doesn’t so much tear the world open as enter a world already torn.

Szász’s novel direction is buoyed by a revelatory ensemble, cast by Joe Pinzon:

Most notable is Edward Gero’s delicious, savage, and joyously evil Roy Cohn. Szász has Cohn emerge from and return to hell every time he appears, often wrapped in phone cords – it’s all very Dante. But Gero’s barking vitriol is so delightful that I had to keep reminding myself that Mr. Cohn was a regrettably real person.

Susan Rome (Henry) and Edward Gero (Roy Cohn)

Nick Westrate is a highly charismatic and stubborn Prior Walter, giving the character’s innate strength a downside as we watch it drive a wedge between him and Louis. I’ll confess now, I have never much empathized with Louis Ironson in Angels. The character reads as a self-loathing conglomerate of Kushner’s own anxieties. His abandonment of Prior is so cruel and taken for granted that it strains credulity. Not here. Louis is miraculously humanized in Darnall’s capable hands – I began to see the play through his eyes. Louis’s instinct to seek change seems, in part, what Prior loves in him and lacks in himself. He’s the best Louis I’ve ever seen.

Nick Westrate (Prior Walter) and Justin Weaks (Belize)

Justin Weaks’ Belize is also extraordinary. As written, Belize stands as an implicit internal critique to the play, provides foil to Louis, company to Prior, and to represent Black femme queers, who are most often tasked with the actual hard grind of progress as men like Louis run away. But Weaks plays Belize better than Kushner wrote him. His plosive and reactive silence in the face of Louis’s guilty babbling and his quips to the audience (a tool smartly reserved for Belize alone) provide necessary balance and counterpoint to Kushner’s abstract, sometimes meandering text. Weaks’ caustic wit and furious compassion elevate Belize as the soul of the play. It’s an awesome spectacle.

If Belize is the soul of Angels, Deborah Ann Woll’s Harper is its visionary. Woll downplays Harper’s quirks and emphasizes the poetic language, which is as reasonable as it is beautiful. Punctuating that choice, Szász’s visuals take their cues mostly from Harper – as she describes systems unraveling, we see them unravel. Together, these choices lend Harper early credibility and make her hard to believe as Joe’s “pill-popping housewife.” That works, because Harper never really seems to believe it herself. Here, she always knows what she is: a prophet.

Nick Westrate (Prior Walter)

In a similarly fascinating choice, the excellent John Austin plays Joe Pitt in reckless rumspringa. The straight Mormon’s “walks in the park” all end at gay clubs, and he never seems to be “just watching.” It’s a compelling portrait of repression through release. However, it might be elevated by directorial restraint: as the lapsing Mormon throws over tables, sprints in seven-too-many circles, and humps the stage, one begins to see the virtue of abstinence, if only from caffeine.

Justin Weaks (Mr. Lies)

It’s not the only thing that doesn’t pay off perfectly: As with a few of Joe’s scenes, there are moments when the actors seem trapped between the realism of the text and Szász’s expressionist instincts, leaving them in neither the real nor the surreal. Also, because the Angel is pretty much always there, her eventual reveal, usually the climax, doesn’t feel quite as Spielbergian as it has in other productions. That’s OK – for the most part, these feel like trade-offs rather than flaws.

Michael Kevin Darnall (Louis Ironson)

The final and perhaps greatest praise should go to set designer Maruti Evans. At the top, a plastic-wrapped heaven seems to be breaking open (like a condom?) as it pours sand onto the stage (the earth). In the center, a black hole that looks ready to swallow them all. It’s a remarkable visualization of key themes of the play. It’s also really damn cool.

The worst thing about Arena’s visionary Angels is that there won’t be a Part Two (Perestroika). It’s such a compelling Part One that this is likely to aggravate everyone, not just those new to the play (there will be a free reading of Part Two on April 17). But who knows? Prior summoned an Angel all on his own. Together, maybe we can summon another.

photos by Margot Schulman

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
Fichandler Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, D.C.

Tues-Sun at 7; Sat and Sun at noon (plus noon on April 6, 12, and 19)
early curtain on April 16 at 6 and April 23 at 1

ends on April 23, 2023
for tickets ($56-95), call 202.488.3300 or visit Arena Stage

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