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Angels in America

Tony Kushner's epic masterpiece is brought to vivid life by an ensemble cast in Michael Greif's compelling new production. logo
Zachary Quinto and Christian Borle in Angels in America
(© Joan Marcus)
Tony Kushner's epic masterpiece, Angels in America, is brought to vivid life in Michael Greif's compelling but imperfect revival, at Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space. The play's two parts -- Millennium Approaches and Perestroika -- are presented in rotating repertory and ably demonstrate Kushner's intelligent, provocative, witty, and emotionally charged approach to issues such as the AIDS crisis, religion, political power, morality, and forgiveness.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set in the mid-1980s, and follows three overlapping plotlines. The first involves Prior Walter (Christian Borle), a gay man living with AIDS, who after being abandoned by his lover Louis (Zachary Quinto), is visited by an angel (Robin Weigert) proclaiming that Prior is a prophet with a message to deliver to the world.

The second storyline concerns the dissolution of the marriage between the Valium-addicted Harper Pitt (Zoe Kazan) and her closeted Mormon husband Joe (Bill Heck), who embarks upon an affair with Louis. The third plotline centers on Joe's mentor, the legendary attorney Roy Cohn (Frank Wood), who is diagnosed with AIDS, and, while in the hospital is attended to by nurse Belize (Billy Porter) -- Prior's former lover -- and haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Robin Bartlett), whom he helped send to the electric chair back in 1953.

Greif's overall production flows well, although the conceit of showing the stagehands move around the various walls and furniture within Mark Wendland's set design is occasionally distracting. Wendall K. Harrington's projection design, however, proves an asset as it helps to suggest several of the play's numerous locales in a simple yet evocative manner.

Quinto -- best known for his work as Sylar on the TV series Heroes and as Spock in the Star Trek film reboot -- makes an impressive New York stage debut as the guilt-ridden Louis. His anguish is palpable, and the character's tendency to launch into political rants is quite clearly seen in Quinto's interpretation as a defense mechanism that helps Louis to cover up his own sense of personal failure. The actor tackles with aplomb a lengthy and complex monologue that Louis delivers while sitting in a café with Belize. In addition, the charismatic performer has a high degree of sexual chemistry with Heck; Louis and Joe's eventual affair seems inevitable from their first encounter.

For his part, Heck ably demonstrates Joe's internal struggle to suppress his desires and his sense of confusion as he loses his moral compass. As Prior, Borle pushes too hard in the first half of the play, giving an overly melodramatic interpretation of key scenes, but is much better in the work's second half when Prior must decide what to do about the rather problematic prophecy that he's been given. Kazan tends to indicate Harper's emotional states more than she inhabits them, but the actress still manages to get across the character's overall arc, and her "threshold of revelation" encounter with Borle's Prior is nicely done.

Bartlett does a fine job in a variety of roles, which include Joe's mother, Hannah, and a rabbi who presides over the funeral of Louis' grandmother. Weigert is also effective in multiple parts, particularly as a Salt Lake City real estate agent and as a mannequin of a Mormon frontierswoman come to life. Porter captures the outward fierceness of Belize but could stand to deepen his portrayal so that he conveys more than just comic relief.

The production's main disappointment is Wood, who doesn't convey the proper sense of authority and entitlement that Cohn needs to possess, particularly in Millennium Approaches. The actor is more effective in Perestroika, as his character feels his control over his life slipping away. Throughout both parts of Angels, Wood repeatedly flicks out his tongue in a gesture that presumably is meant to indicate Cohn's snake-like manner, but it comes across as overly cartoonish.

All of the actors, of course, have to compete with memories of their stage and film predecessors. And if the current cast doesn't quite reach the same heights as Stephen Spinella (who won two Tony Awards as Prior in the original Broadway run), Al Pacino (who won an Emmy as Roy Cohn in the HBO miniseries version of Angels), or Meryl Streep (who appeared in various roles in the HBO version); they nevertheless work well together as an ensemble.

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