Tony Kushner might well have turned to this first verse of W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” as a blueprint for “Perestroika,” Part II of the epic Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia. With this week’s production, Stray Dog completes the cycle. When the show was on Broadway, theatre-goers could choose to make a day of it with a dinner break or see the two (which are really one super-sized work) on subsequent days, but separating it by a longer time period, as Stray Dog Theatre necessarily does, doesn’t matter because we pick up right where we left off: Prior Walter’s (Ben Watts) fever dream/vision of a bright angel invading his lonely room where he suffers from AIDS, and telling him to “Rise, Prophet,” for the “great work begins.”
But as we return to the surreal, profound worlds of Prior, Harper (Rachel Hanks), Louis (Aaron Paul Gotzon), Joe (Stephen Peirick), the Angel and Others (Sarajane Alverson), Belize (Greg Fenner), Ethel Rosenberg and Others (Laura Kyro) and Roy Cohn (and very short bits of “Others,” David Wassilak), Yeats’ poem began to echo in my mind. Indeed, humankind cannot hear God anymore, and neither can the Angels, for that matter, because he’s apparently hung a “Gone Fishing” sign on the celestial office door and taken off for parts unknown. (Given this information, Prior insists the Almighty should be sued when/if he returns, so now we have an idea of what Roy Cohn might be up to in the afterlife, for he does die of AIDS, which is not a spoiler for anyone who ever heard of him.)
So, with no one in charge, the angels who sit on the Council of Principalities and monitor human activities on earth are powerless to do anything but observe, sort of like Congress. They meet and flap their jaws a lot, but without God, a “center,” they cannot hold either, anarchy is loosed and a great plague (the “blood-dimmed tide”) drowns innocence. The “best” (Prior) does “lack conviction” (he isn’t at all sure what he should do, especially since he’s a prophet now) and certainly the “worst” (Cohn and his ilk) are “full of passionate intensity.” In fact, Roy tells Joe that his own meanness only reflects the “Stygian sludge pit” that is the world.
Prior’s beautiful white angel has become a dark, avenging creature with black feathers and wings, and besides freaking Prior out, she also puts Joe’s mother, Hannah, (Kyro) into a swoon. But Hannah is resourceful. She knows her Bible, and when Prior dithers about what to do, she tells him to wrestle the Angel (like Jacob) and he does, with rather surprising results. In fact, it’s surprising that Hannah and Prior are together in the first place, but it is also indicative of the way this part of the play works, as the focus shifts from the two couples featured in the first part to the reconciliation of individuals who couldn’t be more disparate in earthly ways to point them toward an understanding of their interdependence. And Hannah is no stranger to heavenly manifestations, considering she is a Mormon, a religion (or “cult,” in Louis’s terms) based on the appearance of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. (“Why aren’t they called ‘Morons?’” Harper muses.) Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
A lot is coming down on the slender shoulders of one scared young man (Prior is 31 or 30, depending which version of the ages he gives is true) and has seen his friends drop dead all around him, his lover (Louis) leave him and take up with Joe Pitt who has, in turn, deserted the hapless Harper. For her part, Harper is forced to get up, dressed and out of the house by Hannah, “Mother Pitt,” whom we have seen riding to the rescue at the end of Part I. At that point, her action looked like that of a desperately confused, deeply religious woman who is coming to straighten (literally!) her son out. But that isn’t what happens at all. Through her, we see how the doubling of characters is beginning to work—Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg, for example. Do they have anything in common? It wouldn’t seem so, other than being the mothers of sons, but that is only scratching the surface. Watch closely, and it becomes clear why Kushner specifies that the same actors play multiple roles.
The “Second Coming” can refer to God himself (and the Angel makes clear that God is gendered male, though not in the image of man but a Hebrew letter of fire). Is it a coincidence that God does entertain the idea of returning when Roy Cohn dies? Who better to embody the rough beast whose solipsistic focus never wavers from his own self-absorption? If his kind prevails, if God does not return, the earth will be ruled only by the singular ego of selfish humanity with no sense of their common interests or sympathies.
Darkness abounds in Prior’s world now, and the question becomes whether Prior will accept his role in the next great awakening as part of a godhead, and not just a prophet. (Note that all the angels use the personal pronoun “I I I,” rather than just one “I”), If he does, do we have hope? If he does not, will earth face only devastation from within such as happens in earthquakes, and not coincidentally, the San Francisco quake of 1906 occasioned God’s abdication. Now Prior is the Chosen One who must face the court of the Heavenly Host, the Book of Life in hand (it was under the floor of his sink) to accept or reject his mission, literally, a question of life and death.
“Millennium Approaches” opens with Kyro as an aged rabbi; “Perestroika” begins with her playing the “world’s oldest living Bolshevik,” literally blind but a visionary nonetheless. He insists that he will get behind any movement that has “a beautiful theory. . . .words. . . a book.” He objects to America’s way of life, to capitalism, because he finds it sloppy. The primacy of the “Word” in all its potential manifestations, earthly and divine, is finally at the center of Kushner’s creation, for in the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.
A key metaphoric location is the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park which is the site of several key scenes. Louis explains its history and Hannah talks about it in terms of the healing powers of the waters that sprang from the original fountain in Jerusalem and its association with an angel. Also, Prior and Harper meet in another place fraught with meaning for the play: The Mormon Visitors’ Center. Hannah is working there and she takes Harper along to keep an eye on her. Prior stops by one day and the two meet and reprise the “threshold of recognition” from “Millennium Approaches,” reinforcing their identification with each other. Both are gazing upon a diorama of a family in which the mechanical father who narrates the story of the Mormon’s American diaspora, and they remark on the dummy’s close resemblance to Joe Pitt (played, of course, by Peirick). One picky prop point: There seems to be a mini-plague of anachronistic Coke cans in St. Louis right now. It’s distracting.
In execution, “Perestroika” (which translates as “the thaw”) is funnier than “Millennium,” but there are fewer laugh lines and more organic humor underpinning the piece, but there are still plenty of funny allusions and remarks. But by now, we know these people very well, just as we do family and friends, so we have certain expectations for their behavior and are primed to laugh with them, cry with them, or just observe and listen to them on cue. The long-form script trains the audience almost as much as it does the actors, and it challenges us too. Not as much as it does the people onstage for whom I have the greatest admiration, but it’s a magical marathon for all of us.
This time, I have no reservations about anyone’s performance. As in “Millennium,” Watts is astonishingly good, followed closely by Alverson, Fenner, Zotson, Peirick and Hanks. But the two MVP’s in this part are Wassilak (he has all the best lines too) and Kyro. Her scene at Roy Cohn’s deathbed as she helps Louis through a Kaddish, a prayer with which he is almost entirely unfamiliar is, for me, the dramatic high point of “Perestroika.” Bell has directed with passion and love again, and I saw that even more clearly last night. And the rest of the people responsible for the technical aspects of the production, Tyler Duenow (lights), Alexandra Scibetta Quigley (costumes), Jay V. Hall (general factotum, who I neglected to mention last week), and once again, the” king of all media” Justin Been (everything else) need to be recognized.
Angels in America has been called an AIDS play, even the “greatest AIDS play ever written,” but while AIDS is certainly acknowledged, and while likely that in its time frame (1985 to 1990) it broadened audience knowledge about the syndrome, I don’t think the piece is “about” that. It is “about” everything: love and death and sorrow and understanding and a world with God and one without and, most of all, Life with a capital “L.” Kushner/Prior doesn’t just love life, he is IN love with it. In the end, his passion is, to me at least, irresistible, as is Stray Dog Theatre’s towering accomplishment in giving us this masterpiece in toto.