Angels in America: Perestroika is a long play in just about every way imaginable. Tony Kushner’s epic is over four hours long, it’s the sequel to another show of almost the same length – produced by the ADC last year – and its timespan is so ambitious it runs from the creation of the universe to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Despite this ambition, what struck me watching the second instalment was how beautiful, small, and intimate much of this production was, and how captivating many of its more personal scenes were. This is a play concerned with heaven, earth, and hell all at once, creating a world where both angels and humans tell their stories. The excellent set design aids this significantly, offering a cluttered front of stage juxtaposed with a stark celestial backdrop. The play’s mystical aspect, which is probably best described as a surrealist series of prophetic visions through the play, is less successful; the angel is well portrayed by Vee Tames as an overwhelming, aggressive presence, but something, perhaps the costuming, misses the weirdness of this apparition, and the creature generally seems a little half-hearted.
Momentum begins to build whenever the play moves back down to earth, becoming a tight, intense story about two broken relationships and the society which broke them. This is one of surprisingly few areas where Part 1 really helps in appreciating Part 2, since it’s in the earlier play that these relationships are established and painfully unwound, but these four intertwined stories are also emotionally affecting in themselves.
Joe, a Mormon lawyer grappling with his homosexuality, is – at the very beginning – played by Paul Storrs somewhat artificially even for this deeply repressed man, but as the play progresses the performance becomes richer, revealing the cruelty of the character in a genuinely shocking way. Joe has abandoned his wife, Harper, played with aplomb by Annabelle Haworth, for a passionate but fragile affair with Guy Webster’s Louis; Webster and Storrs successfully convey an intense eroticism which gives the play some essential nuance of tone.
This playing with mood is also very visible in the play’s most surprising aspect, its humour – an impressive achievement here, which offers a sense of relief in the building tension. Some of the funniest lines belong to Ciaran Constable as Belize, and he consistently excels in delivering them, while never slipping into just being comic relief. His major foil in this play is Daniel Bishop’s Roy Cohn, who never quite reaches the other characters’ emotional depth. Cohn is an exceptionally difficult character to portray, given the vileness of real-life Roy Cohn (a political operative who was a mentor to the young Donald Trump). Cohn’s panel on the AIDS Memorial Quilt reads ‘Bully. Coward. Victim’, a line which inspired Kushner to write the character into his play; Bishop’s Cohn is certainly a bully, a rather unconvincing coward, and far too relentlessly over-the-top to be truly seen as a victim. He does interact well with Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost, however, played by Ella Blackburn – who also plays an angel, Roy Cohn’s doctor, an ageing Bolshevik, and Joe’s mother.
It is in Blackburn’s role as Joe’s mother Hannah that she successfully conveys the most touching and lovely relationship of the play –her inexplicably intimate connection with Prior Walter, Louis’ ex-boyfriend and an AIDS patient. Joe Pieri’s Prior and Blackburn’s Hannah have an extraordinary, delightful chemistry which allows their strange friendship to be built with very few words at all. Pieri is in general the standout feature of this production; his Prior is magnificent, a desperately charismatic mess of vulnerability, hope, love, and rage, and blessed with impeccable comic timing. It is fitting that he gets the final lines of this epic story, in an intense and beautiful ending Pieri delivers perfectly – after Haworth’s Harper also gets a truly stunning speech to send her character off, superbly performed.
Even after such a long and draining show, the ending was as impactful and profound as anything I’ve seen; ‘the world only spins forward’, Prior declares, and the many merits of this production combine to keep you absorbed in that progress.