The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget ‘important.’ ‘Angels in America’ is brilliantly entertaining.

James McArdle, left, as Louis and Andrew Garfield as Prior in “Angels in America.” (Helen Maybanks)

NEW YORK — Please give yourself a pat for deciding to return to — or visit for the first time — Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the essential dramatic event of 1993.

And 2018. 

Oh, you’re hesitating to take the plunge? You’re thinking, “Seven hours, over two performances? Two nights that I’ll never get back?”

I’m here to tell you that your investment will come back to you in the capital gains of enlightenment and sublime entertainment. Director Marianne Elliott’s riveting production, a transfer from London’s National Theatre, which stars Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane and had its official opening Sunday at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, is the kind of bracing total immersion in fierce, funny drama that is nutrition for both intellect and soul.

This is, to my mind, much more than a nostalgic reexamination of one of the high points of late-20th-century theater; the two parts of Kushner’s epic of moral dislocation and personal commitment in the age of AIDS, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” originally ran on Broadway in the early 1990s. This new mounting feels more one-of-a-kind than that. This owes to both an irrepressible inventiveness in Elliott’s staging and to the performances she elicits from eight actors of consummate range, playing the constellation of characters in “Angels’ ” interwoven plots, supernatural flights and surreal detours.

The threads of Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes,” as he subtitles it, record a bleak time in the mid-1980s when the government, refusing to treat AIDS as a national crisis, turned its back on dying citizens — a shameful chapter marked in “Angels” as the terrible result also of God having long since given up on humankind.

It’s the job of one angel, as bedraggled as a Manhattan pigeon and played by the wonderful Amanda Lawrence, to seek out a prophet, Garfield’s desperately ill and supremely well-played Prior Walter, to help a rudderless heaven extinguish humanity’s propensity for endless questing. Should Prior remain in heaven to assist, or return to earth and face the hardships of living? In a pair of plays that look at abandonment from many angles — how can Prior’s lover Louis Ironson (James McArdle) desert him when he most needs him? Could closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) be any crueler in the neglect of pill-popping wife Harper (Denise Gough)? — Kushner acerbically and movingly marries everyday concerns to cosmic ones.

The stories — coincidentally? prophetically? — pointedly dovetail with the political conditions of the America of today, in part through the character of Roy Cohn, played with bravura wit and bile by Lane. Cohn, as anyone glued to the news can tell you, was coach and mentor to Donald Trump, and the portrait here of a vindictive, bombastic lawyer, nursing his grudges and ceaselessly plotting revenge on his many enemies, is one of the plays’ comic (and resonant) coups. For while Prior is visited by the beseeching angel, the similarly AIDS-stricken Cohn is tormented by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown, in one of several superb turns), the Brooklyn woman convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and seemingly railroaded to the electric chair by then-prosecutor Cohn.

“Millennium Approaches” is generally regarded as the more refined achievement, but you wouldn’t know it in Elliott’s satisfyingly balanced pair, one of the reasons this occasion is so special. Another is the remarkable degree to which the director, a Tony winner for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” finds visual pathways for the crisscrossing of the realistic and metaphysical dimensions of the plays. Though Adrian Sutton’s score sometimes sounds jarringly inappropriate, Ian MacNeil’s set is ideally suited to the multifaceted journeys on which Kushner takes us. It all pays off grandly in the vision of heaven MacNeil conjures in “Perestroika,” an often-
maligned scene that here comes across as an ontologically clever riff on one of the plays’ many popular-culture touchstones, “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Angels in America” is packed, too, with extraordinary characters. They are all actors’ dream parts. Garfield has played Spider-Man on the big screen and Arthur Miller’s Biff opposite the late Philip Seymour Hoffman on Broadway, but nothing he’s done prepares you for the star-powered dexterity of his Prior. He’s the persuasive moral core of the piece, and his Prior segues effortlessly from ironic self-deprecation to ferocious righteousness and back again. Lane contributes a portrayal just as towering, a turn that in Cohn’s deathbed scenes takes on harrowing proportions, as he and Brown’s Ethel spar for one final mordantly funny round.

McCardle and Gough are major assets, too, as the complexly rendered mates of men at opposite ends of a spectrum of self-belief. And as the plays’ paragon of common sense and decency, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize is a performance of which you simply can’t get enough. With Elliott at the helm, they all help us to see our better — and maybe our best ever — “Angels.”

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Sets, Ian MacNeil; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Paule Constable; movement and puppetry, Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell; music, Adrian Sutton; sound, Ian Dickinson; illusions, Chris Fisher. With Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Matty Oaks, Jane Pfitsch, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, Lucy York. About 7 hours over two parts. Each part, $99-$198. At Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52d St., New York. Visit or call 877-250-2929.