‘Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches’, written by Tony Kushner in 1988 and recently tweaked by the writer in 2010, is a great play. Kushner not only writes beautifully but he understands theatricality. The play bounces between witty banter, philosophical debate and insight, the individual struggle of conscience, identity and duty and the rampant and terrifying epidemic of AIDS. On top of that, ‘Angels One’ knows how to use theatrical elements, how to juxtapose scenes, manipulate split focus, integrate technology and the space to tell its story of the human dilemma of existence and acceptance. If you remain faithful to the work, it will do a lot of the work for you and to the credit of director Eamon Flack, he has done exactly that.
Flack has embraced an anti-Belvoir creative directorial vision and kept the play set in America, in its time period of the 80’s and complete with accents. This may sound like I’m stating the obvious but if ‘Death of a Salesman’, ‘Private Lives’ or ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ were anything to go by, making the choice to stay true to the text’s context has been a very unusual and good decision. Sure, part of this play is historical. My recent love affair reliving the 80’s has reinforced for me what a turbulent time of change it was, politically, socially, economically, technologically and even idealistically. The 80’s reflected a time when ‘greed is good’, the self was more important than community, wealth was easier to acquire and the tensions in the political superpowers created a nihilistic hedonism that embraced all of the above.
But the play is more than an insightful gauge of the 1980’s Reagan years and much more than an American story. ‘Angels’ delivers a powerful indictment of mortality, belief, relationships, loyalty, love and ambition and these are themes that cross any era or accent. The play does not feel dated. ‘Angels’ actually feels enlightening, as corny as that sounds, and a play that can traverse culture and time, when it is so time specific, is a good play indeed.
I saw it on a Sunday afternoon and the acting was a little uneven. I call it the matinee lull or the after-effects of a big run and a long week, as they are playing both parts in rep and it is a huge ask of any actor. Consequently I found myself not always tuning in to the full extent in some of the monologues, which sometimes felt low in energy and as if the actors weren’t completely engaged in them themselves. But the duologues were much more successful for everyone.
Robyn Nevin had problematic vocals- she really struggled with a couple of characters such as the rabbi and the doctor, to project those lines out to her audience. No-one is doubting her ability to deliver and she can utterly transform herself in each role but I always get the impression with Nevin that she wants the audience to come to her instead of her giving it out to the audience. Marcus Graham (Roy M. Cohn) plays the angry American with aplomb. I just found there was something missing in any other dimensions to his character and so I’m really looking forward to seeing Part Two to see what else he brings to this role. But there is no doubt that with Graham opening this play centre stage that he draws you in immediately. I’m definitely keen to see more from this cast and their characters in ‘Part Two: Perestroika’, especially as some of them, like Paula Arundell (Angel/Emily) and Ashley Zukerman (Joseph Porter Pitt) just seemed to be on the brink of some wonderful character arcs.
But the highlights for me from this show would have been Mitchell Butel (Louis Ironson) and Luke Mullins (Prior Walter). There is something so real and believable about their relationship on stage that gives such integrity to the choices and theatrical surprises of the play. Butel’s one-sided conversation with Belize (Deobia Oparei) was probably the comic highlight of the play and certainly for both of these characters, even though its content was inflammatory and sadly, reflective of wearing the victim-badge. Mullins has a striking frailty to his performance, likeable and fragile. There is a complexity to his portrayal that is a huge part of this play’s success, particularly contrasted to his lover Louis (Butel). This is great casting and acting. Butel and Mullins are the cornerstone of the play’s story in Part One and they are lovely to watch.
I’ll save all the design critique for Part Two, which I’m seeing next month after I return from a few weeks in Russia (it just seems appropriate to tell you that in a review of ‘Angels in America’), so expect a few quiet weeks on the posting front.
So if you can get a ticket, you’ll get your money’s worth in ‘Angels in America: Part One’ and it will give you plenty to talk about in the foyer in each interval and afterwards.
How refreshing to see Belvoir invest in a play of this magnitude and deliver it with integrity and faithfulness.