Monday, June 19, 2017

London Revivals, Part I: Political Morality Plays

Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarre in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

This piece contains reviews for the National Theatre's Angels in America, Donmar Warehouse's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Young Vic's Life of Galileo.

The hottest ticket in London this summer – aside from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, just beginning its second year in the West End – is the National Theatre revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm about it, but then I’m the stubborn cuss who doesn’t like Angels in America. No one could say that I haven’t done due diligence with the play. I saw Part I: Millennium Approaches, in its original National Theatre production in 1992 (with Henry Goodman as Roy Cohn), and both Part I and Part II: Perestroika, on Broadway in 1993 (with Ron Liebman as Cohn, Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter, Marcia Gay Harden as Harper Pitt and Jeffrey Wright as Belize). I’ve also seen Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO film version (with a cast including Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Patrick Wilson, and James Cromwell).

Kushner subtitled the work, which runs for seven hours and forty minutes in its complete form at the National, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and clearly one of the elements that critics and prize-winning committees and the vast number of theatre professors who regularly include it on the syllabi of modern drama classes respond to is the enormity of its ambitions. It’s intended to be a chronicle of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of the gay community; a coming-out play; an excoriation of the repressive spirit of Republican politics targeted specifically at Roy Cohn (played by Lane in this latest production), Joe McCarthy’s counsel and a Department of Justice prosecutor at the Rosenberg trial, and a closeted gay man who died of AIDS in 1986; and a comparative exploration of Mormonism, Protestantism and Judaism focusing on politics and sexuality at the end of the twentieth century, with a disquisition on race in America. Three of the characters are Mormon, three are Jewish, one is white Protestant and one is African American, and there are many others, the roles divided among a small cast whose efforts, in any production of the play, are equivalent in physical endurance alone to running a pair of marathons. In style Angels in America is alternately realist, surrealist and Brechtian, with interludes of satirical caricature.

Because of its length and its broad, broad canvas and inescapably because of the seriousness of its subject matter, it has been widely accepted, certainly from the moment it opened on Broadway, as the answer to every American theatre lover’s dream – a masterpiece, the great work of American drama of the last part of the twentieth century, a staggering achievement to be considered alongside Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire. But, as the film critic Pauline Kael once pointed out (in an evaluation of the movies of Stanley Kramer), we don’t run for office in the arts – that is, it’s not an artist’s intentions we’re supposed to evaluate but his or her actual accomplishments. The fact that Kushner attempts to do so much would only be impressive if he pulled it off. He does not. The historical material is thin and finger-wagging – scolding rather than scalding. The first set of dream sequences (mostly in Part I), where Prior Walter (Garfield), a gay man afflicted with AIDS, and Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), a pill-addicted neglected Mormon wife, cross over into each other’s dreams, is fatuous; the second set (mostly in Part II), where an angel (Amanda Lawrence) visits Prior, has sex with him, deems him a prophet, guides him through the unearthing of a holy document, and (after he wrestles with her) ascends with him into the heavens to debate with the other angels over the fate of the human race, is embarrassing. Structurally, Part II is a diffuse, shapeless mess, intercutting increasingly extravagant fantasy sequences with realist scenes that circle back to repeat dramatic points that Kushner made perfectly clearly in Part I. The shifts among camp humor (which Kushner is very good at), psychological-realist dialogue (which he’s skillful at working through in acting terms but which is burdened with an Arthur Miller-like banality and overexplicitness) and poetic prose (for which he has no gift whatsoever) are exceedingly clumsy.

Nathan  Lane and Russell Tovey. (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

My main objection to Angels in America, however, is that, for all its breast-beating progressiveness, the play is not a human drama at all but a screed that, based on a stringent political vision, determines precisely whom we should like or whom we should not. Aside from his protagonist, Prior, we are allowed to like Harper, who finally liberates herself from her unhappy marriage and, in the last minutes of Part II, flies off to an unspecified city to start a new life. We’re encouraged to love her widowed mother-in-law, Hannah (Susan Brown), who sells her home in Salt Lake City and moves to New York City when a phone call from her son Joe (Russell Tovey) alerts her that he is in a state of crisis; and Prior’s closest friend, Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who is gay and black and a professional nurse – the one who takes care of Cohn when he winds up in the hospital. Hannah (who, happening to cross paths with Prior just before a medical emergency, gets him to his doctor and stays by his side) and Belize are the real angels in America: pragmatic, unsentimental caregivers. On the other side of the equation are Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt. Cohn’s outsize presence and vaudevillian theatricality are supposed to make him entertaining, and to a limited extent they do, but they don’t mitigate his loathsomeness. More to the point, nor does his suffering, which Kushner offers as just deserts for a career of heartless conservative political manipulation and which he exacerbates by giving him the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Brown) to haunt him to his grave. (The TV movie bio Citizen Cohn, which stars James Woods and was broadcast in 1992, in the midst of the first productions of Perestroika, also includes the specter of Rosenberg, among other figures that hover over Cohn in his final days.) Kushner pretends to have some sympathy for Joe, a married Mormon struggling with his homosexuality, but the scenes between him and Harper, whom he is sacrificing to his terrified bid for normalcy, are not balanced; they’re tipped in her favor. (He condescends to her and infantilizes her.) Besides, Kushner can’t permit us to be on Joe’s side for long because he’s a Republican lawyer whose mentor is Roy Cohn. In Part II he’s exposed for the decisions he wrote for the lazy judge he’s clerking for – repugnant decisions that disenfranchise and undermine the dignity of the victims of corporate negligence and discrimination (especially against gays). Joe Pitt is the one major character whose fate Kushner doesn’t even bother to write out; after Harper finally gets up the courage to walk out on him and his first gay lover denounces him for his politics, he simply drops out of the play.

That lover is Louis Ironson (James McArdle), the only one of the main characters who doesn’t quite belong on either side of the equation – but that doesn’t mean that Kushner hasn’t worked out precisely what we’re supposed to think about him, too. Louis, who works in a low-level job in a Manhattan law office, is an ineffectual intellectual who loves Prior, whom he has lived with for four years, but who doesn’t have the physical or emotional stamina to stick around when he gets sick. (Belize, who has never had any patience for Louis and sees through his phony left-wing discourse, is the obvious foil for his character.) On the rebound from Prior he sleeps with Joe, but after a couple of weeks of allowing him to share his bed he discovers his connection to Cohn (the Antichrist) and just what kind of work he’s been up to in the judge’s office. That’s when Louis comes to his senses and realizes that, by all that’s holy, you just can’t fuck around with a Republican. Contrite, he tries to get Prior to take him back, but though Prior still loves him, it’s too late – and anyway, from the play’s point of view, he doesn’t deserve him. But he’s done penance so he does get to come back into the circle of the good characters. In the last scene, he’s hanging out in Central Park with Prior (who, courtesy of the angel, is still alive after five years), Belize and Hannah, debating fervently over Gorbachev and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Since, in my view, it’s impossible to make a production of Angels in America work, the only thing I can say about the revival at the National is to point out its virtues. Neither Elliott nor the set designer, Ian MacNeil, does much of interest visually with Part I, but the stylistic demands of Part II seem to have freed them both up – MacNeil gets rid of the restrictive revolve he relies on in Part I and he and Elliott begin to employs the Lyttleton Theatre space imaginatively. In the enormous role of Prior, Andrew Garfield really goes for broke, and though he pushes some of the time, the combination of his wit and boundless energy is laudable. Nathan Lane is very funny when the script allows him to showcase the humor in Cohn’s role; in the serious scenes, he chews every piece of scenery on the stage, like the actors who preceded him. (I can’t see any alternative, since after all Kushner has written him as a melodramatic villain.) Denise Gough gets through the extraordinarily tricky role of Harper by keeping her head down and playing her scenes with absolute clarity and for their emotional truth; only occasionally – mostly in the first act of Perestroika – does the overwriting get the best of her. I didn’t find either Brown or McArdle convincing, and he doesn’t have the resources to prevent his scenes from sounding like the same scene played over and over again. Tovey, who was so wonderful in the TV series Looking and especially in its TV-movie sequel, seems badly miscast as Joe Pitt, but in my experience the role is unplayable. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett isn’t in the same class as Jeffrey Wright, who played Belize on Broadway and in the movie, but he gets his laughs. Part I is tolerable; Part II feels endless.

Lucy Ellinson (left) and Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

There are two Bertolt Brecht plays playing in London concurrently, both rarities. He wrote the gangster saga The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1941 as an allegory for Hitler’s rise to power; at the Donmar Warehouse, which has been converted into an early-1930s speakeasy by designer Peter Mckintosh, menus on the tables outline the history and inform the audience which of the characters is meant to stand in for which real-life figures. The adaptation by Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park) and Simon Evans’ production add another layer by turning Ui/Hitler (played by Lenny Henry) into Donald Trump. As with the Trumping of Boss Mangan in Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage, you wish they’d fought against the temptation, because the instant-recognition laughter the updated references (many of them visual) generate are mostly a way of flattering the audience. The links between Hitler and Trump are superficial; the ones between Ui and Trump don’t work. Norris hasn’t made an effort to rewrite the narrative so that it will fit Trump’s story; the characters in the text still represent Hindenburg, Ernst Röhm and others in Weimar-era Germany.

The show is enormously proud of its own cleverness. Before it begins, actors in Mckintosh’s 1930s costumes roam through the lower level of the theatre and greet the audience – as actors, as behooves a Brechtian production, not as the characters they’re about to play. And as the performance goes on, it makes more and more use of members of the audience, as corpses and members of the jury in a trial scene and even in one case as its innocent defendant, framed for setting a warehouse fire for which Ui’s men were actually responsible. Since these recruits are not actors and not rehearsed, they inevitably slow down the episodes they’ve been thrown into and knock any dramatic sense or structure out of them. During the courtroom scene I felt like I was watching a drama activity at a summer camp.

Henry has a powerful presence and the casting probably would have been right if he hadn’t been asked to play Ui/Trump as well as Ui/Hitler; not surprisingly, he can’t pull off both. The acting of the ensemble is wildly uneven; the three main women in the cast, Lucy Eaton, Lucy Ellinson and Justine Mitchell, are awful in that overstated way that is broadly misperceived to be appropriate for Brecht, and so is Tom Edden as the Announcer. (All four of them, like most of the other actors, play several parts.) As Alderman Dogsborough – the President Hindenberg figure – Michael Pennington, who has a had a long and distinguished career on the English stage, gives a subtle, layered and moving performance that transcends the production.

Brendan Cowell and Billy Howle in Life of Galileo at the Young Vic (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Brecht’s Life of Galileo was written in 1938 and first performed five years later in Zurich; he rewrote it in the mid-forties for a production in English starring Charles Laughton – a famous flop – and rewrote it again a decade later for the Berliner Ensemble, the company he helmed in East Germany. Its length and unwieldiness have doomed it to the (considerable) pile of Brecht plays that get passed by for revivals. But the Young Vic has chosen to stage it, cut to three hours and directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), its space reconfigured by designer Lizzie Clachan to resemble a planetarium. And man, does Wright work hard to try to make the play work. He incorporates puppets and sets off fireworks; his Galileo, Brendan Cowell, bops around the circular space revving up the audience sitting and lying within the inner circle of the playing area. (The action spins around them.) The play focuses on Galileo’s struggle with the Catholic Church, his decision to recant rather than be put to the stake and his changing the world anyway by writing his Discourses late in life while officially under house arrest and under the watchful eye of his jailers. Brecht’s theme, as ever, is how one must live in a corrupt world, and he deals with the notion of heroism in his usual sly and slippery way, simultaneously satirizing and, in a back-hand way, reaffirming it. Wright has done an admirable job of paring down the text and the ideas in it are very clear. What he can’t do is turn it into drama; it’s a long series of scenes in which the characters talk at each other. Readers of Brecht’s articles understand that he wanted to turn the theater into a lecture hall; readers and viewers of his best plays know he was a showman who contradicted his own theory – but not, unfortunately, in Galileo, which predates most of his great plays. Wright goes to a lot of trouble, but to my mind what he ends up proving is that it, if you don’t have drama, all the rest is just window dressing.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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