Theater Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART TWO (Bedlam and Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on September 23, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


What happens when you put eight actors on a stage with a script that includes the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the Mormon Visitors Center, the Jewish mysticism of philosopher Walter Benjamin, and Roy Cohn—one of the slimiest lawyers who ever lived? If that script happens to be Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika, by one of America’s greatest living playwrights, Tony Kushner, what happens is an evening (or afternoon) of shocking, hilarious, heartrending, and fascinating theater.

Eddie Shields and Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson

Directed by Eric Tucker of New York’s Bedlam, Part 2 continues Central Square’s production of this two-part work. (Those who missed Part 1 in the spring of 2023 or who simply wish to see it again can take advantage of several opportunities to see it during the Part 2 run.) Kushner’s script is a brilliant mix of disparate people and situations occupying multiple planes of existence.

The Cast

On one level, the play is set in New York City in the mid-1980s and tells the story of Louis Ironson (Zack Fike Hodges) and his boyfriend Prior Walter (Eddie Shields). As Prior is dying of AIDS, Louis abandons him and has an affair with Joe Pitt (Alexander Platt), a closeted Mormon attorney who is married to Harper Pitt (Kari Buckley). When Joe comes out to his mother Hannah Pitt (Debra Wise) in a phone call, she sells her home in Salt Lake City and moves to New York, where she becomes a volunteer at the Mormon Visitor Center. Louis and Prior’s drag queen and nurse friend Belize (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), who is caring for Prior in the hospital, is also assigned to provide nursing care to the notorious and closeted Roy Cohn (Barlow Adamson), dying of AIDS in the same hospital. When Louis learns (via Belize) that his lover Joe is Cohn’s protégé, he breaks off the relationship, but not before he and Joe go after one another in a bruising fight.

Kari Buckley

On another level, the play is set in some version of heaven that is rumored to resemble a utopian gay-friendly San Francisco (in the 1980s, not the present). Prior’s disease-driven delirium features The Angel (Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson). Harper’s tranquilizer-induced hallucinations include visitations by Mr. Lies, an imaginary travel agent (also Mr. Parent), while Roy Cohn’s dying delusions involve visitations by Ethel Rosenberg (Ms. Wise), whom he worked to condemn to death during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. The image of the angel comes from a concept of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who described the Angel of History as hurtling forward into the future while facing backward. All the Angel can see is the destruction of the past as she is propelled into the future.

Debra Wise and Barlow Adamson

As in the spring production of Part 1, the set (Deb Sivigny) consists of little more than the fabric screens of medical settings, creatively deployed again and again, along with the most basic of props—a desk, a small refrigerator, a hospital bed. The bodies of the performers are often called on to provide the platforms or the necessary furniture. Lighting (John R. Malinowski), sound (Kai Bohlman), and costume (Daniele Tyler Mathews) move us through space, time, and character transitions.

Alexander Platt

Repeating his role from Part 1, Mr. Shields portrays the suffering of a dying man abandoned by his lover with heart-wrenching accuracy. What a demanding role! This is a man who for seven hours (including both parts) has portrayed a slow death and a wrenching heartbreak.

Debra Wise and Eddie Shield

Wise, as always, is incredibly versatile, playing not only Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt, but also (in a single brief scene at the beginning of the play) The World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik who decries the replacement of “the beautiful theory” of Marxism with market incentives under Gorbachev’s perestroika, or restructuring, of the Soviet Union’s centralized economy in 1985.

Kari Buckley and Maurice Emmanuel Parent

Parent manages numerous feats of physical strength (like balancing other characters on his thighs) and a terrific drag portrayal of dance club sensation Grace Jones as well as handling the crucial role of the eminently sane and ethical Belize who ministers to Prior while holding Louis accountable for his shortcomings. Adamson gives us Cohn as utterly loathsome and yet with a wit that makes him seem almost human. Hodges depicts Louis as deeply flawed yet remorseful. Again and again, scenes take surprising twists, whether through humor or the arrival of an angel or a figure from another time or place come to comment on the present situation. The diorama scene in the Mormon Visitor Center, for example, is like a George Saunders story in its combination of realism and absurdity. Despite the chaos and destruction, the play ends on an optimistic note, and the sheer breadth of its scope is ultimately an affirmation of humanity in the face of the destructive forces of disease and the politics of hate.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Eddie Shields

The arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice (while not fully achieving it) in this play. Central Square and Bedlam offer it to us to aid us in healing from the ongoing ravages of COVID-19 and of the forces that are attacking queer, Jewish, Black, and so many other people who battle the disease of extreme right-wing conservatism. Prior wrestles with the Angel in this account—and wins (after the Angel tears a muscle in her thigh).

In the final words of the play, Prior turns to the audience and says:

“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.”

I read the word “fabulous” to mean not just a gay-tinged wonderful as it is currently used, but also to mean as the “stuff of fables,” or, to quote the dictionary: of an incredible, astonishing, or exaggerated nature.

It’s a blessing to carry us forward as we wrestle with our own demons—and Angels.

Eddie Shields and Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson

photos by Nile Scott Studios

Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Part Two: Peristroika
Part One: Millennium Approaches (eight performances only)

Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge
a co-production with Bedlam
Wed and Thurs at 7; Fri at 7:30; Sat at 1 and 7:30; Sun at 2
(see both parts on Sat, Sept. 30 and Oct. 7) Part 1 at 1; Part 2 at 7:30
ends on October 8, 2023
for tickets, call 617.576.9278 or visit CST

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