Does the normalization of AIDS today mean we appreciate Angels in America less?
Does the normalization of AIDS today mean we appreciate Angels in America less? Credit: Michael Brosilow

As staged at Court Theatre, the two parts of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America take seven hours to unwind. That means lots of intermissions, which in turn means lots of lobby conversations on the subject of what the person standing next to you thinks of the show so far. I was surprised at how many of the people standing next to me said something like, “Well, it’s really a period piece now, isn’t it?”

They had a point, of course. It’s over 20 years—i.e., a generation—since part one of Angels in America premiered with the Eureka Theater Company in San Francisco. And some of the events covered in the play go back further still, to the mid-1980s. What’s more, the psychic distance is enormous for many of us, and growing. Angels references Cold War figures like Roy Cohn, the lawyer/fixer who made his bones doing dirty work for Joe McCarthy, and Ethel Rosenberg, the American communist who went to the electric chair along with her husband, Julius, for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Kushner is old enough to remember, and maybe feel, the passions that were aroused once by names like these. But, hell, the Berlin Wall fell at around the same time that Angels premiered. The Soviet Union is no more. The memory grows dim.

There’s more to it than that, though. Based on my lobby conversations, I’d say Angels is seen fundamentally as an AIDS play, and AIDS is seen as over. Never mind that, according to statistics from the American Foundation for AIDS Research, there are 34 million people with HIV/AIDS living in the world right now. Never mind that 7,000 are said to contract HIV every day. And that 1.8 million died of AIDS in 2010—contributing to a total death tally of about 30 million. People are no longer going as fast, as horribly, or as visibly as they once did (at least in America), and the need for a public response to the disease is generally acknowledged (at least in America), so the great protests of the Reagan era are no longer considered necessary. Basically, AIDS has been normalized. Housebroken. And Angels has apparently suffered a commensurate decline in its ability to project urgency.

In a way, it was sweet how sad some of my fellow audience members seemed to feel at finding that the play was leaving them cold. They clearly wanted to be engulfed, the way they were whenever it was they first saw Kushner’s wild, funny, angry, talky, complicated saga centered on—though by no means and not by a long shot limited to—a triangle involving Prior, a 30-year-old gay WASP with AIDS and angelic visions; Louis, Prior’s titanically neurotic Jewish lover, who goes to pieces over Prior’s illness; and Joe, a Mormon, Republican, married lawyer who falls for Louis.

But they couldn’t get the old fire back, and Charles Newell‘s staging wasn’t helping. The first part’s signature moment—when an angel from on high crashes through the ceiling of Prior’s bedroom to hail him as a prophet—is muted, even subverted here: no fallen chunks of plaster, no outstretched white wings, and definitely no Spielbergian mix of awe and delight. Instead, the dominant visual element is the set of shiny steel wires that keeps Mary Beth Fisher’s angel hanging in midair. Fisher looks uncomfortable, and the mechanics of her comings and goings are clunky. A huge effort of will is required to maintain the necessary pretense of majesty.

Aerial difficulties aside, Fisher makes an engaging angel. Other ethereal beings, however, come across as leaden—including an entire council of them that appear in part two. Much more could be made of a scene in which Prior consults with a couple of his ancient forebears. And as Mr. Lies, an imaginary travel agent who appears to Joe’s pill-popping wife, Harper, Michael Pogue seems to have been directed away from any manifestation of charisma, with disappointing results.

On the human side, Geoff Packard makes Joe himself so diffident—as opposed to conflicted—that it’s hard to believe he’s regarded as a potential Republican star. Similarly, Eddie Bennett’s Louis fails to project the genius of a truly great obsessive, so that his constant, Talmudic chatter becomes tedious when it should inspire, well, a Spielbergian mix of awe and delight. Makes you wonder why not just one but two men are crazy about him. On the other hand, Heidi Kettenring brings an intriguingly counterintuitive buoyancy to the depressed Harper, Hollis Resnick is a fascinating study in flint as Joe’s mother, and Larry Yando is a full-out, holy monster as Roy Cohn.

Shakespeare’s plays went into eclipse for a time before their power was rediscovered, and time may need to pass before Angels is freed from its historical moment, too. The evidence of this ambitious but unsatisfying production notwithstanding, it’s a brilliant piece of work—if only because, like the Greek tragedies, it carries human suffering so defiantly into the realm of the divine.