At this point, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” remains basically what it always was — an audacious, wildly ambitious, pointedly political satire invested with elements of high tragedy.
In other words, it’s a crazy grab-bag of theatrical ideas by a young playwright who refused to be confined by existing conventions. In 1993, when it burst onto Broadway, nobody had seen anything quite like it: a wacky, pugnacious piece of theater that gleefully exploded the boundaries of existing genres while making serious points about the human condition.
As the current Kansas City Repertory Theatre production makes clear, Kushner’s two-part epic still retains the power to surprise, amuse and enrage.
Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize for “Millennium Approaches,” the three-act play that makes up the first half of “Angels.” Yet most of the best stuff happens in the second part, “Perestroika,” because that’s where we see the most interesting character changes and the most spectacular surrealistic images. In many contemporary two-hour plays, the first act is just the set-up for all that happens after intermission. The same holds true for “Angels.”
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The Rep production has been staged by the esteemed David Cromer, a director capable of brilliance, who mounts the show in a relatively spartan style at the Copaken Stage, the Rep’s downtown venue. The Copaken’s limited technical capabilities force Cromer to stage the work with low-tech creativity — thus the Angel (played vividly by the charismatic Jennifer Engstrom) makes her entrance not in a flying harness but atop a rolling ladder.
The seemingly no-frills approach can be deceptive, however, because Keith Parham’s lighting and Christian Gero’s sound design are integral to the show’s success. But the only two elements absolutely necessary to engage an audience are Kushner’s writing — eloquent and brainy with a penchant for cheap one-liners — and actors capable of bringing his words to life.
This cast, as it turns out, is virtually flawless. And a handful of these smart performances stand out: Mark Robbins, as the dying Roy Cohn, is at his brilliant best; Paul Oakley Stovall is smart, funny and empathetic as Belize, an AIDS nurse and former drag queen who is one of the play’s most endearing characters; and, as noted, Engstrom brings a level of deadpan humor to the Angel I’ve never seen in any other production of this play.
Jessiee Datino is appealing in a comic performance memorable for its acute timing as Harper Pitt, a Valium-addicted Mormon housewife. Claybourne Elder finds an admirable level of complexity in Joe Pitt, Harper’s closeted husband. Seamus Mulcahy sweetens the plight of Prior Walter, a man with AIDS, with a nicely executed sense of absurd humor. Nik Kourtis, as Louis, Prior’s weak-willed lover, exhibits a refined comic sensibility as well as inner gravitas. And Peggy Friesen plays Hannah Pitt, Joe’s exasperated, no-nonsense mother, with impressive subtlety.
All of the actors play multiple roles. Friesen, particularly, shows stunning versatility in a range of characters that includes a Brooklyn rabbi and an ancient Bolshevik who laments the death of the idealistic vision of the old Soviet Union. Elder and Robbins are very funny as two of Prior’s ancestors from different centuries who appear to him in a dream.
The pair of plays, set in 1985 and 1986, feels a little dated in some respects. AIDS, once the intense focus of journalists and playwrights, is no longer perceived as the plague that it was. And the LGBT community has made advances that were virtually inconceivable in the ’80s.
In terms of politics, however, Kushner lamented an ideology that would only gain strength. The politics he posits in “Angels” aren’t complicated. Principally through the character of Cohn, he argues that a hardline brand of conservatism has wrecked the American dream — that the disadvantaged have increasingly been left to fend for themselves while the wealthy exploit the country’s resources.
The reality may be more complicated than that, but when you a look at the effort to turn Kansas residents into neoconservative lab rats by the current gubernatorial administration, it’s hard to argue that Kushner got it wrong.
Even so, Kushner’s version of Cohn remains a galvanizing tragic figure — one of the most vivid in American drama. He asked for no pity and received none. He thought liberals were weak and that conservatives who compromised betrayed their creed. He considered ethics a nuisance. He went to his death as an unrepentant rabid dog.
As written by Kushner and played by Robbins, Cohn is an indelible character. And although Kushner intended him to symbolize political and personal hypocrisy, Cohn nevertheless becomes an oddly appealing character — far from admirable, but impressive as someone who went down swinging.