In a week of big-deal shows, the most ambitious production may be Forum Theatre’s latest, in which characters wrestle with angels and a playwright grapples with themes as big as time and as intimate as death: Perestroika, the second half of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, at once funny and angry and crushingly sad. It’s the satisfying summation, as staged by Michael Dove to pair with Jeremy Skidmore’s dead-on Millennium Approaches, of a passionately humane argument about taking care of one another in a world where change is both constant and the thing that makes us most alive.
Relationships realign in the second half of Angels, as a reluctant prophet (Karl Miller’s haunted, sarcastic Prior Walter) makes first war and then uneasy peace with the lover (Alexander Strain) who’s cut and run in the face of Prior’s AIDS diagnosis—struggling, at the same time, to communicate the enormity of what the angel has told him: Inspired by man’s restlessness, God has gone AWOL, and the engines of creation have started to spin down. Stasis is the fix, the angel insists—“In you the virus of time began,” she thunders, clearly unamused by the after-the-Fall hangover that is universal entropy—and Prior is the man she and her celestial colleagues have chosen to spread the word. Tempting as her gospel of resignation might be to a man whose every breath is a battle, Prior decides it’s too easy: “I want to live past hope,” he says. “I want more life.”
Audaciously imaginative, with its assorted eccentrics and its hallucinatory sidebar excursions, Kushner’s multilayered epic is also rangily intelligent and substantially funnier than you might remember: “This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother,” Prior says, introducing that stern creature (Jennifer Mendenhall) to one of his nurses, who shakes a wondering head and observes: “Even in New York in the ’80s, that is strange.”
On the spare black-box set where they’re still presenting Millennium Approaches on alternate nights, Dove’s cast negotiates the evening’s collisions and quick-changes with no less authority than they bring to the play’s first half. If anything, they warm to their parts: Jim Jorgensen brings a broader palette of colors to his angularly villainous Roy Cohn, now that’s he’s got a death scene (and a morphine-fueled meander or two) to play, and Daniel Eichner allows threads of bitterness and meanness to surface in the character of that errant Mormon, whose confusions prove markedly less pitiable in Perestroika than they seemed at first to be.
And Miller’s Prior, who moved from brittle, camp defiance to confusion and fear in the saga’s opening chapter, turns back from the feverish antics of his prophetic investigations and the desperation of a near-death experience to find a calmer, quieter sort of determination in Perestroika’s gorgeous epilogue. His frame seems spindlier, somehow, and his limp is more pronounced, but his spine is the stronger and he’s aglow with a quiet love. And what he says rings as thrillingly now as it did in 1993, as one American era drew to a close and another opened with something like a promise of hope: “We are not going away,” he insists, tender and quietly defiant. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”
A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams; Directed by Liv Ullmann; Produced by the Sydney Theatre Company At the Kennedy Center to Nov. 21
It’s no accident that the hero of Angels quotes Blanche DuBois from his hospital bed: Like Prior Walter, the woman at the center of A Streetcar Named Desire is a resilient creature haunted by death and gasping hungrily for “more life,” but her crazy-tragic line about the kindness of strangers is such a triumph of camp-culture iconography that even straight boys have learned to deliver it with an appropriately knowing air. All the more difficult, then, for the actress who’s called on to deliver those memorable words in earnest, at the end of a scene that, when stars align, ought still to be as shattering as Prior’s farewell.
Stars have aligned at least a little in Liv Ullmann’s staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, which comes to the Kennedy Center from Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, with a luminous Cate Blanchett in the lead. It’s not a perfect reading of this famously difficult play, but it’s one of the clearest I’ve seen, stripped down to the essentials of a damaged but determined Blanche and a cruelly unforgiving world. I’m not prepared to go as far as the Washington Post, which lets its enthusiasm for Blanchett’s star turn blind to such trifling oversights as a largely unconvincing Mitch. But neither am I prepared to dismiss the production the way one colleague did, as an ill-calibrated outsiders’ attempt at scaling one of the peaks of the American canon. (For more on that, please note our debate on City Paper's Arts Desk blog.)
If you admired Patricia Clarkson’s languidly graceful Blanche a few years back, you probably won’t be moved by Blanchett’s version, whose trembling hands and nervous half-starts may strike you as unsubtle semaphore. Note that it’s a considered choice, though: This Blanche is shaky only when she’s faking things, when she’s struggling to keep her grip on that moonlight-and-magnolias illusion she keeps trying to sell. When she’s left with no alternative but the truth, the hands fall still and the high, lilting voice slopes down into huskier territory, and Blanchett allows a glimpse of an earthy, vital Blanche, a strong and consciously sensual woman who’d have cut a formidable figure if she’d been born 25 years later or a couple of latitudes north.
Strong and consciously sensual is certainly how you’d describe this production’s Stanley, played by Joel Edgerton not as a cluelessly coarse antipode for Blanche but as her no-illusions opposite number, a man whose physical appetites aren’t far removed from hers but who’s not about to pretend, like Blanche, that they don’t exist. He’s not educated, but he’s nobody’s fool, and if he can’t escape being the beast Blanche describes, he’s at least got an animal’s cunning to help him see through her paper-lantern lies.
Once the lantern’s down and the titans have clashed—the famous rape is more a drunken collision here—Ullmann bucks tradition and pushes for more drama still, staging Blanche’s last moments in the Kowalski apartment as if this once-poised creature were a cornered rabbit panicking at the smell of an inquisitive fox. It’s a startling choice, but for a play that’s at least partly about the demise of an old aesthetic and the rise of a crude replacement, it’s not an outrageous one. And as the final struggles fade and the doctor leads Williams’ empty-husked heroine away, one last twist suggests a Blanche for whom more life, suddenly and movingly, holds little further appeal.