Culture Vulture: ANGELS IN AMERICA

April 15, 2018

I’ll admit it — I’m one of those obnoxious guys who loves to brag “I saw it first.” I saw Hamilton at the Public Theater before it became a Broadway blockbuster. I saw Prince at the Bottom Line, a tiny nightclub, at the time of Dirty Mind. And yes, I saw Angels in America in its first incarnation at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in the summer of 1991, when the second play, Perestroika, was still an unfinished rough draft.

I reviewed David Esbjornson’s bare-bones production for the Village Voice (see here)I believe it was the first New York review, and I got a very sweet letter from Tony Kushner afterwards.

The following year I traveled to Los Angeles to see the official “world premiere” at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone, who had commissioned the play for Eureka. And in 1993 I saw the original Broadway production, staged by George C. Wolfe, and wrote a cover story for the Voice that centered on a long, fascinating interview with Kushner. When Mike Nichols’ made-for-TV movie came out in 2003, I watched it three times. And I saw and reviewed Michael Greif’s Off-Broadway revival of the play at Signature Theater in 2010. I was out of town when Ivo van Hove’s stripped-down production played the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2014 so I wasn’t even tempted to go. By the time Marianne Elliott’s production for the National Theater in London became a big hit and transferred to Broadway, I kinda felt like I’d had my fill of Angels in America and would be content to skip it, relishing my memories of past productions. But the reviews and word-of-mouth were so stellar that curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to buy a ticket at the last minute to see Part 2, Perestroika, because it’s been dramatically different in each previous production and I was curious to see what Elliott — who staged the thrilling Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — has done with it.

I didn’t love it. Nothing about the production improved on previous versions I’ve seen. A major selling point for the Broadway transfer was the casting of two famous names in major roles — Andrew Garfield as the central character Prior Walter, a 30-year-old cater-waiter with AIDS, and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. Both disappointed me. Garfield gives a shockingly shallow, mannered externalized reading, the epitome of a straight guy acting queeny. He evinces none of the rage and despair that Stephen Spinella brought to his definitive performance in the role. I wasn’t aware until the curtain call that Garfield is English, which made me understand another layer of his distance from the character, even if he did get choked up giving the show’s pitch for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I found some of the other British actors equally unsatisfying — Susan Brown’s drab turns as Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother, and Ethel Rosenberg, for one, and Denise Gough, who was so fiery and intense in People, Places & Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall but here barely conveyed the damaged soul of Harper.

I did admire handsome James McArdle’s performance as Louis, and perhaps the best thing about the production is the theatrical spectacle of having the Angel played by Amanda Lawrence as a stark, ravaged creature whose wings are manipulated by a team of “Angel Shadows” (reminiscent of the puppetry in War Horse, which Elliott also directed). Nathan Lane…bless his heart, I always like it when he plays mean, unsympathetic characters but he can’t help overplaying his plentiful laugh lines so the performance comes off as familiar shtick. I admired some things about Lee Pace’s performance as Joe, the tortured bisexual Mormon lawyer, a very tricky role that walks a narrow path between enigmatic and underwritten — Pace embodies the enigmatic part but I didn’t feel any real emotional connection between him and either his wife or Louis, with whom he has a coming-out affair. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett was okay as Belize but again was directed to go heavy on the physical flamboyance but never quite felt like the solid moral center of the piece, which is how others (Jeffrey Wright on Broadway and in the movie, Billy Porter in the Signature revival) have played the role. Nathan Lane’s understudy is Mark Nelson, a terrific character actor whom I would love to see play Roy Cohn; I would also be happy to see Beth Malone, who was the wonderful adult Alison in Fun Home, who is the understudy for Amanda Lawrence and plays Wednesday matinees.

Clearly, I am not the ideal audience for this production. I probably sound like one of those jaded opera queens who natter endlessly on comparing historical productions of “Cav and Pag.” People who’ve never seen Angels in America may well find this Broadway production revelatory. It is absolutely an astonishing piece of work. And despite all my qualms about the performances, I wept all the way home, unable to shake the memories the play dredged up of those years people like me spent visiting hospital rooms, tracking every emerging opportunistic infection and promising pharmaceutical treatment, and burying friends and loved ones.


Quote of the day: MONEY

April 9, 2018

MONEY

Without the ability to fully love or be fully loved, so many of us think that the acquisition of money can bring self-esteem and happiness. I’ve enjoyed friendship with some exceedingly wealthy people. If money brought happiness, then each of them should be ecstatically happy. But I doubt whether any of them is any happier than any of my less well-to-do friends. Money, it seems, attracts more envy than empathy. More lust than love.

–Cary Grant


Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: springtime in New York

April 8, 2018

The Spring Culture Season blossoms forth!

March 30God’s Own Country on DVD (I didn’t love it the way many others have — the central relationship seemed more schematic than plausible to me).


March 31Cabaret Luxe at Lot 45 in Bushwick, inspired by Weimar-era German club performance, with maitresse of ceremonies Dorothy Darker…

leather-lunged diva Dee Dee Vega backed by punk klezmer rock band Amor Obscur…

and burlesque performers Lewd Alfred Douglas…

Divina Gransparkle…

and Deity (pictured below with the entire cast).

April 1David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum, fun immersive experience.

While we were there, we strolled through the ongoing exhibition “Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas,” with its eerie kachina dolls and awesome thunderbird masks.

Afterwards Andy and Tansal and I had lunch at Kiwiana in Park Slope, which serves all New Zealand cuisine, including the irresistible dessert known as pavlova.

April 5Yerma at Park Avenue Armory, Lorca’s play adapted and directed by Simon Stone with a ferocious cast led by Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell (below, photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times) and a spectacular set designed by Lizzie Clachan.

April 6Wild Wild Country on Netflix, the riveting six-part documentary about how rural Oregon dealt with the sudden emergence of an Indian sex guru (Rajneesh, aka Osho) and his community of devotees in their midst.

April 7Isle of Dogs at Cinépolis in Chelsea — we loved it.

April 8 — Museum of Modern Art. Final day of the Club 57 show. Ann Magnuson put out the call for a closing day party, so the basement of MOMA thronged with senior citizens who once upon a time were the hippest and grooviest of East Village clubgoers, along with plenty of excited visitors too young to have seen the club back in the day.

This delightful cartoony Kenny Scharf painting (“Escaped in Time, I’m Pleased,” above) prepared me for the colorful figuration all over the Tarsila do Amaral retrospective, with its inquisitive-looking critters and its theme of anthropophagy.

And upstairs a rich, heady, comprehensive survey of rigorous conceptual artist Adrian Piper, with its witty dada performative moments (I loved the idea of the humming room, very Yoko Ono — and I love that a security guard stands by whose job it is to make sure you’re humming when you enter the room).

 


Quote of the day: MONEY

April 7, 2018

MONEY

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a net,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

–Dana Gioia


In this week’s New Yorker

April 1, 2018

Two pieces you have to read:

Margaret Talbot’s simple and clear and devastating reporting about Scott Pruitt and how as head of the Environmental Protection Agency he is pursuing an agenda in favor of big business and its heedless attitude toward environmental protection. Key passage:

In November, Pruitt proposed the repeal of an Obama-era rule that imposed Clean Air Act emissions standards on glider vehicles—heavy-duty trucks that pair new cabs and chassis with older, dirtier engines. Gliders are slightly cheaper than all-new trucks, in part because they aren’t equipped with modern pollution controls. They make up only five per cent of the heavy-duty-truck fleet, but they emit a disproportionate amount of dangerous pollution. Steve Silverman, a former E.P.A. attorney, who retired in January, worked on the glider rule. “We’re not talking only about greenhouse gases,” he said. “These trucks put out diesel particulate matter, a human-lung carcinogen.” In 2016, an agency analysis concluded that gliders produce almost three hundred thousand tons of nitrogen-oxide pollution a year, along with nearly eight thousand tons of diesel-particulate pollution. Agency scientists estimate that a single year of glider pollution causes as many as sixteen hundred premature deaths.

At a public hearing in December, environmental and public-health groups such as the American Lung Association sent representatives to speak for keeping the rule. That was expected. But so did Volvo Group North America, which produces both Volvo and Mack trucks. Susan Alt, Volvo North America’s vice-president of public affairs, testified that the proposed repeal “makes a mockery of the massive investments we’ve made to develop low-emission-compliant technology.” The American Trucking Association also testified against a repeal. Bob Nuss, whom the association named the 2017 Truck Dealer of the Year, flew at his own expense from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to attend the hearing. Nuss said, “I told them, ‘Maybe it’s only five per cent of the trucks, but how would we all feel if five per cent of the trucks didn’t have to stop for a school bus or obey the speed limit?’ Sneaking around, avoiding emissions compliance, filling the air with soot—it’s just not right.”

The strongest support for rescinding the rule comes from the largest producer of gliders, Fitzgerald. Last year, Fitzgerald, which is based in Tennessee, hosted a campaign event for Trump. In May, Pruitt met with the company’s founder and C.E.O., Tommy Fitzgerald. Two months later, Fitzgerald and two glider dealers wrote a letter to Pruitt contending that the agency lacked the authority to regulate gliders under the Clean Air Act, because “the engine, transmission, and typically the rear axle” are “not new.”

Pruitt soon announced that the E.P.A. would reconsider the rule, and precisely echoed Fitzgerald’s claim that gliders fell into a regulatory gray area because they contained “new and used” components.

Staff writer Rachel Aviv writes one story after another about people in excruciatingly painful situations. This week she writes (in “How a Young Woman Lost her Identity”) about a woman who suffers from an extreme form of dissociation, which puzzles everyone she knows, especially her devoted mother.

Bonus: the cover illustration by the brilliant Christoph Niemann (“Trompe-l’Oeil”) becomes an animation when you view it in digital form. Check out the story behind that here.


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