Like that other sprawling poetic effort to comprehend the American experience, Angels in America contains multitudes—not just rafts of characters, reams of arguments, oceans of political passion, but enough texture and heft to seem like one play on first viewing and another play entirely upon a second look. To a twentysomething with an optimistic bent, its picture of a world with gods gone AWOL might seem disagreeably bleak; to a thirtysomething more versed in the ways of men and their deities, its insistence on the durability of the human spirit might seem radically big-hearted. And to a fortysomething coasting uneasily into midlife, the intimacy of the play’s relationship portraits, and the sober charity of the authorial vision behind them, might seem generous and comforting and wise—not least because for all their failures and floundering and brokenness, Angels’ unforgettable characters seem always to be capable of rising again, and reaching, and trying to understand.
That, anyway, is the admiring consensus of my own personal multitude on the occasion of a fourth viewing of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, with its scornful condemnation of the greed and selfishness of Reagan-era politics and its agonized study of a culture grappling with a newly emergent plague—a play rooted in a very specific time, to be sure, but a play that seems, after the fashion of a genuine classic, to have something new to say each time I encounter it. And what an encounter, this latest: Courtesy of the smart, scrappy Forum Theatre, Jeremy Skidmore’s lean and limber staging makes a virtue of the minimalism dictated by a small company’s limited fiscal resources, sticking with a straightforward visual style and trusting in the performances of some very fine actors to bring the audience along as Kushner builds his case against cautious conservatism and for—emphatically, passionately for—an ever-widening embrace.
Angels, you’ll recall, is a two-part epic, and what Forum has on display for now in its new Silver Spring home is just the first half of the sprawling seven-hour whole: Millennium Approaches, which begins with an ending, as an ancient rabbi (the invaluable Jennifer Mendenhall) eulogizes the matriarch of a Jewish clan. Before long we’ll discover that one of its members (Alexander Strain’s in-his-own-head Louis) has another mortal challenge coming, with the AIDS diagnosis of his lover (Karl Miller’s finely observed Prior Walter), and we’ll watch, sorrowfully, as Louis disengages from Prior’s struggle in the same way that he disengaged from his grandmother’s—afraid of the pain, unable to deal with the untidiness of sickness and the yawning threat of death. Meanwhile a well-scrubbed Mormon lawyer (Daniel Eichner’s lean, tight-strung Joe Pitt) fields a job offer from none other than the McCarthy-era crocodile Roy Cohn (Jim Jorgensen) and struggles not to lose patience entirely with his increasingly unstable wife (Casie Platt’s timid, delicately drawn Harper), whose instincts about who’ll betray her prove sharper than they might initially seem.
Other productions have emphasized the massive scope or the flamboyant theatricality of Kushner’s prodigious play, so what’s striking about Skidmore’s reading is the clear focus and the tremendous tenderness it brings to those studies of people in crisis. I remember disliking this underdeveloped character or that in other stagings, but here, by and large, the portraits are of whole people making their decisions (for good and ill) honestly, before your eyes. That makes them awfully hard to resist.
Other performers contribute piquant turns: Ro Boddie, both as Prior’s sassy drag-queen friend and as Harper’s favorite hallucination, both roles offering a kind of comfort in extremis; Nanna Ingvarsson as both a calm-personified nurse and a poignantly mad bag lady; Mendenhall as Joe’s starchy Mormon mother, whose late-night Bronx encounter with the latter is both bitingly funny and one of the cleanest, most moving person-to-person encounters you’re likely to see on a D.C. stage this season.
And then of course there’s Miller, whose indelible Prior charts a path from game-face bravery in the face of his diagnosis to fearful bewilderment as the voice that’s been making itself known in his head turns out to be something external after all. As the play’s famous Angel comes crashing through his bedroom ceiling—after three-and-a-half hours, Kushner’s signal accomplishment is that there’s an undeniable thrill in her announcement that “The great work begins”—Miller’s unlikely hero wears an expression of wonderment and terror and expectation, the look of a man who’s found a limit and discovered there was territory beyond it after all. With Perestroika looming just around the theatrical corner (it opens in just over a week), that’s apt enough—and profoundly appetizing, too.
The Alchemist By Ben Jonson, Directed by Michael Kahn, At Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre to Nov. 22, By Trey Graham
Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist showcases a set of characters whose changes are rung in a distinctly sour key: a trio of con artists, each with a different face to put on for whichever new mark comes along, and an array of targets so ill-content with their lot in life that they’ll believe almost anything if it helps ’em move up to the next level on the food chain.
Updated to the present day, Jonson’s 17th-century commentary on the swindler’s impulse and the greedy eagerness of the gulled certainly has a contemporary chime in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal and the housing-bubble collapse. (Even the play’s plague-panic references seem apt, what with our swine flu worries and all.) What it hasn’t got, at least in this energetic but unfocused staging, is the effervescence that elevates well-timed farce into the realm of gleeful delirium—and without that, the fun can seem a trifle strained.
Not all of it: There are pleasures to be mined in the specifically physical comedy of this aspirational gambler (Nick Cordileone’s Dapper) or that easily roused evangelical (Robert Creighton’s explosive Deacon Ananias). Murell Horton’s costumes, not least the one that suggests Donald Trump’s Dream Vacation At Graceland, are a hoot. And the escalating airport-terminal arrivals and departures of the second act—in which the various schemes of scam artists Subtle (David Manis), Face (Michael Milligan), and Doll (Kate Skinner) first collide, then collapse—look to have been tightly choreographed.
But the magic never quite gathers (never mind the belated entrance of a character done up, inexplicably, as Glinda the Good Witch), and the laughs never build to the helpless, hiccupping pitch you might hope for when you spy a set with no fewer than eight doors to be slammed. Comic alchemy is always a
tricky thing—and with this unhappily earthbound Alchemist, the necessary chemistry just isn’t there.