Regional Reviews: Boston
Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika
Also see Josh's recent review of Assassins
"We live past hope," the prophet Prior Walter says as he stands before the angels in Heaven. "If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do." So Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika sides with the living, those who persevere by whatever means they can. Tony Kushner's work is a sprawling, compassionate answer to the unresolved questions raised earlier in Millennium Approaches. Perestroika, which first premiered in 1992 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, is the looser and shaggier of the two plays, but one imbued with greater vision and a more generous spirit.
Central Square Theater's new production, co-presented with Bedlam, maintains the vitality that propelled its Millennium Approaches earlier this spring. Under the direction of Bedlam Artistic Director Eric Tucker, the eight-person cast (all outstanding) still performs on a largely bare stage, with minimal props and scenery. John R. Malinowski's lighting design continues to impress, contrasting shadowy hospital floors and moody congressional offices with the luminous Bethesda Fountain watching over Central Park. After the unexpected thrill of Part One, the staging feels less inventive this time aroundthough I did enjoy the angels roller-skating around a discotheque Heaven.
But under Tucker's direction, this is also a warmer, more reflective production that jettisons much of the claustrophobia and paranoia that characterized his take on Millennium Approaches. The world of Perestroika is more expansive and experimental than its predecessor. And the four-hour run time flies by, with the actors relishing the sweeping music of the text (no matter how esoteric) and, most importantly, Kushner's keen sense of humor.
Most of the cast members return from Part One, and build upon their previous excellent work. I was thrilled to see more from the remarkable Eddie Shields, who as Prior has become a modern-day prophet following a Dickensian late-night visit from an angel. Swathed in flowing robes, a walking stick, and a Gloria Swanson turban, Shields gives an astonishingly physical performance, his gait irregular and his body in a frantic state of convulsion. Beneath every withering glare and husky-voiced wisecrack that Shields lands (Bea Arthur would be proud of both), you can feel Prior's yearning to be loved, to be cared for.
The Angel herself, played by Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson, has come to Prior to implore him and mankind to stop its progress. God left Heaven at the start of the millennium (during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906), in a migration just like the humans He created, and the angels anxiously await His return. Throughout all of this, Swanson straddles the uncanny line between menacing and strangely alluring.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Belizedrag queen, confidant, and now Roy Cohn's night nursebecomes the beating heart of this production. Like Prior, Belize masks his fears with an outward cool, but Parent is unafraid to show the cracks in his armor and let his emotional id burst through. His "I hate America" speech to Zach Fike Hodges's Louis is blistering here, a true cry of pain in an unforgiving world: "I live in America, Louis, that's hard enough, I don't have to love it." (Parent also does a mean Grace Jones.) Kari Buckley's Harper Pitt and Debra Wise's Hannah Pitt are a delightfully odd mashup, offering much of the play's levity as Hannah takes her daughter-in-law under her wing.
The two new cast members, Barlow Adamson (Roy Cohn) and Alexander Platt (Joe Pitt), are solid additions to the ensemble. Adamson's Roy Cohn is a shell of a man, confined to his hospital room and deteriorating from an AIDS diagnosis that he refuses to acknowledge. His salty sting has lost its bite; ruthlessness has given way to uselessness as he approaches death. Platt, as Joe, shares that emptiness by the end of Joe's story; there's a constant haunted look in his eye. With small shifts in posture and countenance, he modulates from a man reborn in the arms of his new lover (Louis) to a hollowed-out vessel, abandoned by everyone he's loved.
But even for Joe, there is hope. His own migration awaits. "Get lost" Harper says, in her last words to him. "Go exploring." There is hope for all of Kushner's children, these brave souls who've weathered the storm and now must rebuild. Even those responsible for the most unforgivable sins, over the seven-plus hours of Angels in America, receive a form of absolution by the final scene.
I highly recommend making your own journey to Central Square's Angels in America, if you haven't seen it yet. While Part Two continues its run, there are also performances of Part One on September 30 and October 7. Over thirty years later, Tony Kushner's two-part opus remains an essential reckoning with our past and an open-hearted vision of our future.
Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika, a co-presentation of Central Square Theater and Bedlam, runs through October 8, 2023, at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA. For tickets and information, please visit CentralSquareTheater.org or call 617-576-9278, ext 1.