What a difference a space makes. In the intimate Signature Theatre, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches" loses the smug portentousness engendered by the overproduced Broadway and touring company versions and reveals an unpretentious charm and intelligence.
On Broadway, "Millennium Approaches" often seemed lachrymose and hysterical: a soap opera with a message of salvation. In contrast, Lee Mikeska Gardner's production at Signature is firmly rooted in human nature. Rather than being helpless victims of a hideous society, the characters are troubled and searching. They're trying to sort out how they can condemn what they see as Reaganistic greed yet continually fail to do the right thing in their personal lives.
The more swaggering elements of the script are still there, but the focus is now on the play's people, not its message. The supernatural visions that practically screamed, "This is important!" in the Broadway and touring productions are here presented as something the characters stumble into, somewhat abashed and embarrassed. They just want to lead normal lives--the visions are destiny's revelatory joke on them.
It's Morning in America, otherwise known as 1985, and our protagonists' lives are all out of joint. Louis Ironson (John Lescault) discovers that his longtime partner, Prior Walter (Rick Hammerly), has AIDS and runs out on him. Harper Pitt (Melissa Flaim) indulges in Valium hallucinations so as not to face the truth about her failed marriage to fellow Mormon Joe (Paul Takacs), who is excited but ambivalent about a job offer from Roy Cohn (Paul Morella) that would take him to Washington. Cohn has problems of his own, having just been told he has AIDS, an idea he scornfully rejects since he's not some limp-wristed, politically marginalized little doofus but a man with clout--i.e., not a homosexual.
Louis and Joe hook up. Prior starts having visions. Cohn gets sicker and sicker. Against the background of the "Greed is good" 1980s, the characters deal with the moral implications of their own selfishness. Meanwhile there are guest appearances by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Marcia Gardner), Joe's mom, Hannah (also Gardner), a couple of Prior's dead ancestors (Takacs and Morella), a travel agent for drug trips (Craig Wallace), an Eskimo (Takacs), a rabbi (Gardner) and a psychotic street person (Kimberly Schraf). Also plenty of jokes.
Gardner is a very fine actor, and she knows how to bring out the best in her cast. This production is almost embarrassingly rich in wonderful performances. In particular, Lescault's Louis is melancholy and unsure rather than showily self-hating. We sense the gentleness that is the positive side of Louis's weakness, why his friends cared about him. He's ashamed of how he's behaved and honest enough to know that he's running a con: trying to get forgiveness without actually repenting.
Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer in flight from his true sexuality, is something of a dope as written. A moral fellow who wants to be decent, he somehow fails to notice that Cohn, whom he idolizes, is neither. How dim is this guy? This production doesn't quite solve the script problem, but Takacs's angry, puzzled, near-desperate performance as Joe pretty well hides it. This Joe doesn't drift through the play, willfully blind and almost dithering. He's a fighter, losing not because he's a passive, inhibited fool but because he keeps making the wrong choices and plunging into them wholeheartedly.
In the money role of Roy Cohn, Morella is sensational, a vulpine predator with, buried in his twisted psyche, the heart of a child. He's a supple shape-shifter: now wheedling son, now caring father, now biting dog. Morella isn't an obvious choice for Cohn, but he's an inspired one. In middle age, his face has developed stark planes that suit Cohn's ruthless soul very well, and he knows how to make his acting burn into you. Yet this no-holds-barred performance doesn't take over or unbalance the play. Cohn is just part of the swirling crowd.
There isn't a bad performance in that crowd, from Hammerly's patient, witty Prior to Wallace's humane and sardonic hospital worker Belize to Flaim's quirky appeal in the difficult role of Harper to Schraf's comic psychotic to Gardner's work in a variety of small roles.
Lou Stancari's set looks disconcertingly like a stripped-down Stonehenge, but its various levels serve perfectly to present the myriad goings-on. Michael Phillipi's lights take us from this state of consciousness into and out of several others. Anne Kennedy is in her customary top form with costumes that help define and extend the characters: Harper's lumpish overlarge sweater, Prior's Glinda-the-Good-Witch drag outfit, Cohn's flamboyantly tasteful suits. Ron Ursano lushly wraps the production in sound, from the noise of New York traffic to the harplike rippling of angel wings.
"Millennium Approaches" is long, and it's overwritten. In attempting to balance the Harper-Joe relationship with the Louis-Prior one, Kushner has overextended the former: The going gets sluggish during some of Harper's monologues (no fault of Flaim's) and she and Joe seem to have the same fight over and over again. The reflexive leftism and overwrought fear of Republicans are as shallow as always. But the small, comfortable Signature space lets Gardner do with the play what Artistic Director Eric D. Schaeffer has done with his productions of Sondheim: rediscover the work by reducing it to human scale.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, by Tony Kushner. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Props, Eleanor Gomberg. At Signature Theatre through July 3. Call 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Melissa Flaim and Paul Takacs in "Angels in America."
CAPTION: Paul Morella sheds light on the ruthless soul of Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner's epic play.