Roy M. Cohn is not a homosexual. As the high-powered lawyer explains in part one of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” yes, he sleeps with men, and, yes, he appears to have AIDS (heretofore to be referred to only as “liver cancer”), but, he says to his doctor, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?”
The implicit question of this new production of Kushner’s Tony Award—winning 1991 play is whether, twenty years later, Roy Cohn’s words still hold meaning. The play is set in 1985, a crucial year: AZT is still in clinical trials, thousands of young men are dying in the AIDS epidemic, and it is the height of the Reagan era. Twenty years later, AIDS does not evoke quite the same terror, few people have heard of Roy Cohn (who really did exist), and gay marriage is legal in several states.
On the other hand, homosexuality is still frequently ridiculed, disparaged, and condemned by many in the population-at-large, including a serious presidential candidate.
The fact that Court is timing this production right before a presidential election is no coincidence; Tony Kushner himself specifically asked the theater’s artistic director, Charles Newell, to stage this play right now. Having worked with Kushner on two other productions at Court–“Caroline, or Change” and “The Illusion”–Newell readily agreed.
The two-part, seven-hour-long play, subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes,” follows three intersecting narratives: the story of Prior Walter, who gets AIDS, loses his boyfriend, and starts receiving messages from an angel; the story of gay Mormon Republican lawyer Joe Pitt and his Valium-addicted wife; and a highly fictionalized version of slimeball lawyer Roy Cohn’s life story.
The play is as complex and difficult to stage as it is long: multiple scenes occur at once; miracles shake the stage like an earthquake; and characters have vivid dreams and hallucinations, sometimes stumbling into one another’s hallucinations without explanation. As such, Newell’s direction faithfully follows the playwright’s instructions regarding minimal scenery, rapid scene-shifts, and no blackouts. The goal was to “create simultaneity and effortless cross-cutting, and flow from one production to the next with the least amount of time spent on scene changes,” Newell explains. Or, to put it another way: “Don’t stop for nothin’!”
The set is brilliantly designed with that purpose in mind. Behind the stage there is a platform intersected with two vertical lines, creating two stage levels, or six different openings, for the actors to work with. There are two balconies on one side of the stage, and a large, heavy wooden bed in the middle separates the stage into two sections. A scene can take place in Antarctica on one side of the stage, while on the opposite side of the stage the action is simultaneously occuring in New York City.
When a hallucination needs to disappear into thin air, the actor simply stands back, the lights flash over the doorway, and there is a whooshing sound. The sound and light design manages to create the theatrical illusion of instant teleportation, without trapdoors or smoke-and-mirrors.
The intimacy of the Court Theatre is also a boon: spectators in the front row could have reached out and touched the actors. The show is epic in many ways, and yet that intimacy can often make you feel, sitting just a few feet away from the stage, as though you are eavesdropping on an intimate conversation.
The only major piece of furniture is the thick, awkward wooden bed on center stage. Actors had trouble moving around it, and at first it only seemed to be in the way, a foreboding and anomalous presence. Later, when Walter is diagnosed with AIDS, the cumbersome prop becomes his hospital bed and its significance becomes clear.
Production dramaturge Deborah Blumenthal explained that many productions of the play involve huge, elaborate sets in an attempt to “compete with the movie.” Here, however, they have decided to “focus on the text” itself, and the simple set successfully allows the ideas of the work to take center stage; fitting, for a play that is primarily a play of ideas and a critical assessment of American values.
Production dramaturge Drew Dir explains that many of the scenes of magic and dreamwork do not try to hide the fact that they are theatrical illusions. When the angel flies above the stage, for example, the wires holding her up are clearly visible.
“Tony Kushner is a student of Bertolt Brecht, who advocated a theater in which the theater’s means of production were exposed, so that you would always be aware that you were watching a play, a fiction,” says Dir. “For Brecht–and Kushner as well–it’s more important for the audience to keep its critical mind active than for the audience to lose themselves in emotion or spectacle.”
So, while the plot focuses on the “gay fantasia,” the real soul of the work is in its treatment of “national themes.” Audience members may respond differently to some of these themes than they would have when it was first released. Cohn’s line that “American has no use for the sick” is particularly resonant in the wake of the healthcare debate.
“We’re a classic theater company, so by producing this play we’re implicitly taking the position that we believe ‘Angels in America’ to be a classic,” says Dir, “and we’re willing to take a gamble that in one hundred years, people will still be studying and performing it.”
Interestingly, Court Theatre plans to have two special performances of part one of the play for local high schools. It’s difficult to predict what high school students will think of the extremely long and self-consciously intellectual play (one character offhandedly calls himself a “neo-Hegelian positivist”), but it is not hard to predict that they will identify with it. The demographic with the highest rate of HIV infection is no longer gay men; today, it’s teenagers.
The play does sometimes drag during its seven-hour length, and only a few of the actors really stand out: Rob Lindley as the sarcastic and vulnerable Prior Walter, and Larry Yando as the delectably villainous Roy Cohn in particular. Nevertheless, this production succeeds in thrilling, upsetting, and challenging the audience. The play is, above all, an examination of what America stands for; what its future is; and what happens to the sick, the infirm, and the outsiders who lag behind in a system that, for better or worse, forever rushes forward.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through June 3. Wednesday-Sunday, times vary. $35-$65. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org