The Hypocrites tackle Tony Kushner's AIDS epic, but time has tarnished its halo
If the test of a good play is how well it holds up under a weak production, the Hypocrites’ misguided staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches puts the play’s worth in doubt. In the past couple of decades, few plays have been as lauded as the first part of Kushner’s epic drama. (The Hypocrites will stage the second part, Perestroika, in April.) Fifteen years after the Pulitzer-winning play’s premiere, director Sean Graney inadvertently asks us to rethink how it’s withstood the test of time.
Angels’ characters all reckon with sexuality and sickness generally—gayness and AIDS specifically—in mid-’80s New York: a fictive version of the deeply closeted, virulently reactionary lawyer Roy Cohn; a Mormon law clerk Joe (also closeted) and his depressed, Valium-addicted wife, Harper; and Louis and his boyfriend Prior, who’s just discovered a KS lesion on his arm.
With an ambition that’s depressingly rare in American theater, Angels treats its characters’ struggles not just as personal matters but as historical ones. In a medication-induced hallucination, bedridden Prior dreams up a couple of his English ancestors, who tell of the plague and pestilence from their own times, connecting AIDS to a larger history of disease.
Yet Kushner’s high-reaching ideas, though admirable, remain as gestural as his characterizations. Angels’ fast-cutting cinematic technique conceals a schematic structure and wafer-thin characters, who tend to be one thing each: Prior gets sick, so he suffers; his lover Louis can’t cope, so he skedaddles; Joe is sexually repressed; his wife, Harper, emotionally starved. Kushner thus uses his characters as functions (Louis and Joe represent me-first America). And the fantasy sequences, such as when Harper imagines herself with an Eskimo in Antarctica, are the equivalent of fireworks: They briefly dazzle, then quickly evaporate.
Angels’ tangent-heavy, can’t-sit-still style may have been part of its initial appeal, but now it mostly seems indulgent. The scenes pile up, as do the cameos: rabbi, homeless woman, gay pickup. The frantically told, intersecting story lines, like the bombardment of grand-sounding ideas, create a trick-of-the-eye illusion of depth—with the hope that we’ll mistake quantity for quality.
That’s all the more obvious under Graney’s direction. His use of coffins—as a bed, phone booth, toilet—cleverly points out the ever-present specter of death. But it’s far from subtle. Graney seems more concerned with the ambience of a scene than with its emotional core. It’s like a dining experience where the lighting and music set the mood nicely, but the food is fairly tasteless. Fittingly, then, designer Jared Moore adeptly works his tone-setting lights. Yet the near-constant score by Michael Griggs and Mikhail Fiksel, though interesting, detracts from the dialogue, more like the restaurant music that makes it harder to hear your conversation than the kind that complements it.
While the director ingeniously uses his coffins (codesigned by Jim Moore), he seems uninterested in his actors. Kushner’s flat characters rely on the cast to supply all the nuance, but Graney’s actors each have one note: Mechelle Moe as Harper, whiny; Scott Bradley as Prior, queenie; and Steve Wilson as Louis, vapid (not one of his many tears is convincing). By the end, even the strongest performances—Kurt Ehrmann, who captures both Roy’s repellent smugness and his unlikely charisma, and J.B. Waterman, who quietly conveys Joe’s inner demons—have gone nowhere.
Most damaging, the actors seem to be in a race for the fastest talker; in one split scene, the two bickering couples trample all over each other’s lines. As a result, we often get Graney’s ideas, but we lose Kushner’s. (The director’s stylized approach works best with a more pliable text that allows him to take center stage, as he did much more effectively with Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis.)At a time when a play like
Angels was needed, Kushner supplied it. In the early ’90s, when rage and fatalism often seemed the most common responses to AIDS, a mainstream play that took the subject both seriously and playfully seemed heaven-sent. But its unquestionable place in our culture doesn’t make it unquestionably great theater. Graney’s production shows why.