America through an AIDS prism, 20 years later

According to the critical consensus, Part II of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is less appealing than the first part, due to its longer speeches, its greater emphasis on the supernatural, and an opening monologue by The World’s Oldest Bolshevik that may have connected with audiences when the play was new— right after the December 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union— than it does now.

In the face of those dangers, this Wilma production of Perestroika made a strong impact. Its poetic monologues summarize what’s played out through the two sections of this play, much the way Jess Stacy’s quiet piano solo did at the end of “Sing Sing Sing” when Benny Goodman played it at Carnegie Hall in 1938.

As the AIDS epidemic metastasizes amid governmental neglect, Kushner muses about history, politics, society, health care access for the privileged, religion and the apparent absence of God. It’s serious material, but rarely has Kushner’s humorous undercurrent shone through so brightly.

Thus when attorney Joe Pitt tells Prior, “This is an appellate court,” Prior rebuts, “I am appealing.” Another character remarks, “The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word free to a note so high no one can reach it. That was deliberate.” More humor, perhaps less anger, but an equal amount of determination to change the course of history.

Gift of prophecy

Blanka Zizka has directed brilliantly, aided by the superb cast she hired. The players don’t push for laughs; they never mug or underline their words.

While the entire cast is excellent, three members stand out. James Ijames is charismatic as the nurse Belize, full of wry comments. Aubrey Deeker is a haunting presence as Prior, the AIDS victim who is given the gift of prophecy. The flickering glances of his eyes and the pursing of his lips add meaning to his lines. And the veteran Stephen Novelli gives the performance of his lifetime as Roy Cohn, whose fiery manipulations in Part I of Angels have now become the rants of a powerless King Lear.

Here is an instance where the passage of time renders scenes more touching than they were when Angels was new. Audiences knew all about Roy Cohn’s nefariousness when Angels opened in 1992, six years after his death. The character Louis speaks of “the damage he’s done, the years and years of criminality.” Cohn’s illegal conversations with the judge during the trial of Ethel Rosenberg are a matter of record, as is his disbarment for unethical behavior, but now his name evokes only vague recognition.

Cohn and McCarthy

The woman seated next to me, just like Joe Pitt in the play, didn’t recognize Kushner’s paraphrase from Joseph Welch’s denunciation of Cohn and McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Thus Novelli is able to evoke empathy with, and even sympathy for, a shrewd and powerful closeted gay man dying of AIDS while denying he had it.

Zizka maintains the theatrical illusions that Kushner specified as important to his play. Unlike a stark production by the Signature Theatre in New York, the angel sports flamboyant wings, and her arrivals and departures are spectacular. The set by Matt Saunders is so simple that the occasional flashes of fire or of the Hebrew letter Aleph make especially strong impact.

The play’s message remains, as verbalized by The World’s Oldest Bolshevik, “The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In time?” The particulars have changed since the Reagan era, of course. But the challenge remains