Dallas — It’s exciting to see Part Two of anything. Like tuning back into a great detective series. Like the predicate the fascinating subject introduced that you know already exists and you’re sliding toward it.
Part II: Perestroika of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s brilliant Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play first staged on Broadway in 1993 about the AIDS crisis in the Reagan era, evokes a particularly urgent rush because Part I ends with a huge winged angel crashing through the ceiling and landing on the hospital bed of the young hero dying of a hush-hush plague killing gay men across the nation.
Of course, the hero is dying to know what happens next—and so are we after such a vision wherein a desperate man is told that “the Great Work has begun.”
Uptown Players presented an acclaimed production of Part One: Millennium Approaches in their 2016 season at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Now they launch their Gay History Month Festival with the second half of this epic tale of love, abandonment and lost faith unfolding in a luxuriant language as rich as Job in its depiction of pain and as concrete and comic as Chaucer in its ultimate optimism. Kushner’s masterwork is strenuous and ambitious in its exultation of human love stepping up to the altar when God has left his creatures to suffer as they may, to make what they can of a broken world.
Astonishingly and happily, director Cheryl Denson returns with all the members of the cast and design team of Uptown’s 2016 play. Denson’s vivid and powerfully physical production is terrifying and touching and hilarious and as life-affirming as a holy chorus sung by a joyous choir of street performers on caffeine and fruitcake. We embrace these vivid and eccentric characters, natural and supernatural, historical and fictional, ghost and angel, like long lost brothers and sisters.
Even if you never saw Part One, the link between the two three-hour dramas is rapidly and elegantly established with the appearance of black-robed Prior Walter (whip-thin, luminous Garret Storms with long Jesus curls) and Belize (gorgeous, gutsy Walter Lee in tights and heels), the hero’s feisty male nurse and ex-drag queen talking after a funeral for a queen they both liked. Prior tells Belize about his heavenly visitations and that he’s dressed like a biblical prophet because an angel told him he is one. Belize thinks his friend is simply crazy with grief because he’s sick to death and his smart-ass, weak-kneed Jewish lover, Louis Ironson (tall, dark and craven David Meglino), walked out on him.
When Belize plays an eerie tune on an oboe, which he says is “the official instrument of the International Order of Travel Agents,” he summons up a delusional Harper Pitt (beautiful Marianne Galloway in crazed ironic mode). She’s singing like a lunatic in the snow, half-cracked over losing her Mormon husband Joe (tight-jawed man-candy Kyle Igneczi), a law clerk and prodigy of the McCarthy-trained lawyer Roy Cohn (hyper, snarling David Lugo, channeling Iago), to Louis, a lowly assistant in Joe’s offices.
In three short scenes, we’re in the thick of this momentous melodrama. The increasingly strident Angel (alluring and comically sulky Emily Scott Banks) comes tumbling from above with her attendant thunder and lightning, thanks to Marco Salinas’ seat-shaking sound design and Aaron Johansen’s lighting. Her dutiful stage hands in black clothes move props and take care of her flight gear. Hannah Pitt (stalwart, deeply maternal Pam Dougherty), Joe’s tough Mormon mama, arrives to salvage her gay son’s marriage, or at least bring broken Harper in out of the cold.
The giant gray blocks of Bart McGeehon’s dark metropolis set part and Roy Cohn himself is wheeled in front and center on a hospital bed, bitching and groaning and muttering racial slurs at his nurse Belize. Thick-skinned Belize loathes the fractious bastard, but hold him tight when he doubles over in pain from AIDS (liver cancer to the public) and yells at the ghost of Ethyl Rosenberg (Dougherty again, perfectly embodying the ironic, pitying spirit), whose death sentence for espionage Cohn delivered. This is the same heinous Roy Cohn who learned his trade from McCarthy and was a Trump business advisor. The stain of greed and power runs deep.
The human and supernatural plots thicken to the scorching point as they intertwine on dark street corners, and in hospitals and bedrooms. Joe and Louis play out their desperate lust affair, replete with the adrenaline of guilt and the scent of male desire. Prior begins his feverish research in “angelology.” Hannah and Harper are thrown into strange hallucinations and revealing dreams, and Cohn gets funnier and more despicable as he gets sicker.
More to the point of Kushner’s play, the Angel and her colleagues, outfitted in Suzi Cranford and Jessi Chavez’s gothic costumes, call a heavenly council to deal with Prior’s attitude toward her demands that he quiet down and just do what is expected of the deathly ill. What the hell? Exactly.
The ensemble performance is seamless, and yet every actor deserves a paragraph of praise for the rapturous solo outtake on the hereafter or the sudden comic line that lands perfectly in the grim hospital corridor. Such is the power of Kushner’s vision, that you recognize the timing and cadence of his language coming from the mouths of all these different characters. Kushner’s people have a universal gene. Like the lusty Wife of Bath or the valiant Knight or the evil Pardoner, who sells pardons like a modern-day politician, and the other pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to hear Kushner’s characters is to know them. Can you love them? Go see.
By the time we’ve run the three-hour gamut with Prior and his sudden physical bravery and heartfelt eloquence tangled in the feathered wings of death, we feel a surge of pride in the human species and the resilience of simple truths. Love, loyalty, and even forgiveness are alive and moving relentlessly toward an emergent tomorrow.
You’d be wise to join the pilgrimage.