Posts Tagged ‘tony kushner’

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.

Top theater of 2011

December 19, 2011

NEW YORK THEATER: Top Ten Productions of 2011

1. JERUSALEM – Jez Butterworth’s dense, lyrical, astonishingly original play superbly directed by Ian Rickson, centered on the justly legendary performance of Mark Rylance (above) as half-man half-myth Rooster Byron, with help from a sturdy ensemble cast and production design by the artist known as Ultz.

2.  THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) – Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway lived up to the company’s high standard for wit, depth, theatrical liveliness, and tech savvy. Great ensemble performance directed by John Collins, with a special shout out to lead actors Mike Iveson and Lucy Taylor, supporting performers Kate Scelsa, Susie Sokol, and the amazing Kaneza Schaal, and production designer David Zinn.

3. THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ VIEUX CARRE — an unlikely match and another beautiful triumph for Elizabeth LeCompte and her brave actors, led this time by Ari Fliakos as the author’s stand-in with all subtext stripped away.

4. THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT – Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play kept me laughing really hard at the most heartbreaking scenes, where cruelty and romance kept morphing into one another. Top-notch cast, though for me the revelation was Yul Vazquez as the scene-stealing cousin.

5. OTHER DESERT CITIES – Jon Robin Baitz’s taut play, a showcase for five excellent actors beautifully directed by Joe Mantello (I preferred the Lincoln Center cast with Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin).

6. SLEEP NO MORE – British theater company Punchdrunk’s ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare and Hitchcock made for the year’s single most original theater experience, a dreamscape sprawling over 100 rooms in two adjacent former warehouses in Chelsea.

7. THE ILLUSION – Signature Theater’s Tony Kushner season ended with Michael Mayer’s gem-like staging of this lyrical bit of poetic philosophy featuring memorable performances by Lois Smith, Henry Stram, and Peter Bartlett.

8. BURNING – Thomas Bradshaw’s haunting, provocative play working the raw edges of sex, race, and politics staged with gleeful perversity by Scott Elliott.

9. THE PATSY & JONAS – the incomparable actor and playwright David Greenspan had another banner year with his own play Go Back to Where You Are at Playwrights Horizons and this quirky double-bill of solo virtuosity.


10. SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK – I saw the final performance that could legitimately be said to reflect the work of director Julie Taymor (above), with its mind-boggling sets by George Tsypin and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and I thought it was terrific. Sue me.

Runners-up:

•    James Macdonald’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, headed by the formidable trio of Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw (below);

•    David Leveaux’s smart revival of Tom Stoppard’s towering Arcadia


•    Taylor Mac’s collaboration with the Talking Band, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth at La Mama, a perfect tribute to the recently departed champion of idealistic experimental theater

•    The Book of Mormon, thanks to the fearless Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the clever Casey Nickolaw

•    Daniel Sullivan’s lucid Shakespeare in the Park staging of All’s Well That Ends Well

•    David Lindsay-Abaire’s troubling but sticky Good People – Frances McDormand justifiably got the reviews and the awards but let’s not forget Patrick Carroll’s exquisite supporting performance

•    Nina Arianda’s scintillating howdy-do in David Ives’ Venus in Fur (above right, with Hugh Dancy)

Theater review: THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL… (iHo, for short)

May 20, 2011

My review of Tony Kushner’s new play — (take a breath) The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures — at the Public Theater has just been posted on CultureVulture.net.  Check it out here and let me know what you think. I had a lot of mixed feelings about the play, but only admiration for the superior performances by Michael Cristofer and Linda Emond (below).

And by the way, if you’ve seen the play and are hungry to know more about it, the 16-page study guide that the Guthrie Theater produced as an audience education tool for the world premiere in 2009 is still available as a PDF online. It’s kind of a masterpiece of dramaturgy.

Theater review: ANGELS IN AMERICA

December 20, 2010

I subscribed to the Signature Theatre Company this season, devoted to the work of Tony Kushner, specifically so I could buy $20 tickets and take Andy to see Angels in America, which he’d never seen before in any form. Then I dilly-dallied around during the membership ticket-buying period and it was sold out until way into the new year. We ended up getting on the priority waiting list, which meant we might have had to sit on the stairs for all seven hours of this two-part epic. But we did not.

As I say in my CultureVulture review, “Angels in America… means a lot to me, having followed it as a journalist since it existed only as an unproduced manuscript being handed around by excited literary managers. I saw the 1991 world premiere at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco (when “Perestroika,” the second play, was still a work-in-progress), and then the first fully staged production the following year in Los Angeles, both parts as they debuted on Broadway in 1993, and then the Mike Nichols movie, which I watched twice. When the Signature Theatre Company scheduled a revival of Angels in America as the opening show in its current season devoted to the work of Kushner, I didn’t know if I had it in me to sit through the seven-hour thing again. I was almost dreading it, partly because I heard very mixed word-of-mouth about the cast. Well, forget all that. The Signature revival is a triumph for everyone involved.”

You can read the whole review online here.


Andy reported overhearing someone in the lobby reading the above sign and murmuring, “I hope the haze doesn’t obscure the nudity.” It didn’t.

In this week’s New Yorker (and other publications)

October 24, 2010

Here’s what is foremost on my mind politically these days: yes, I am disappointed with President Obama on any number of fronts,  but I’m not willing to let that disappointment turn the 2010 midterm election into a referendum on his presidency by thumbing my nose at him. To do so would be to allow the newly energized far-right to gain more power than would be good for anybody.

I suppose I’m one of those who would like to think that Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Linda McMahon are wingnuts whom the populace can’t possibly consider worthy of office. I am persuaded by David Barsamian’s interview with Chip
Berlet,
a journalist who has taken as his subject the rise of right-wing populism, that this would be stupid and naive. The Tea Party, Berlet says, “started out as a fake grass-roots movement funded by political elites. We call them ‘Astro-Turf’ movements. Republican and conveservative poltiical operatives were trying to create the impression that there was a groundswell of antagonism toward the Obama agenda. Some of the early activities were very thinly disguised Astro-Turf, but as the media began to pick up on it — especially Fox News — the Tea Party turned into an actual social movement. It escaped the specific economic-libertarian agenda set for it by Dick Armey, the former Republican House leader from Texas whose organization funds a lot of Tea Party events. Other agendas were brought in: anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-abortion, even conspiracy theories about the ‘new world order’ and the UN coming in black helicopters…”

Berlet goes on to say, “Sociologist Rory McVeigh did a great study showing how right-wing movements arise in defense of power and privilege. People on the right are fighting to keep something they don’t want to lose. That’s a strong motivator…You don’t build a campaign of prejudice out of thin air. It has to be rooted in the culture. So you start out with a rhetoric of us versus them: We’re good; they’re bad. We’re going to save America; they’re going to destroy it…It’s portraying the political opposition not as people with whom you disagree but as a force of evil with whom there can be no compromise. How can you compromise with Satan? How can you compromise with the people who want to destroy America? What happens in this situation is that people started getting killed.”

The interview ends with Berlet saying, “When you build a major social movement around scapegoating and resentment, things can move quickly in a bad direction…We’re not going to have a Hitler; we’re not going to have storm troopers marching in the streets. What we’re going to have is a Republican Party that moves to the Right and openly embraces racist, xenophobic ideologies, following the anger of the predominantly white Republic middle class. And the Democrats will follow them, or at least not mount a real opposition. There will be more anti-Muslim and antifeminist and antigay rhetoric. There will be more support for foreign intervention. And that’s our future, unless the progressive movement stands up and starts raising hell.”

Meanwhile, in the New Yorker this week there’s a long insightful profile by Nicholas Lehmann of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader who is one of the main targets that the Tea Party movement (i.e., all the money the Republican party and the oligarchy can come up with) is trying to take down. Reid is anything but a hell-raiser, quite uncharismatic and therefore quite susceptible to media-enflamed attacks by his opponent Sharron Angle. As the New Yorker so often does, Lehmann’s reporting takes us behind the scenes to see exactly how Reid has succeeded as majority leader in helping Obama make any number of legislative gains on the kind of unsexy but overwhelmingly important issues that government is supposed to address but that get undervalued in our crazy media world.

“Obama, with his big congressional majority and keen sense of the fleeting nature of political momentum, decided to be bold in his first two years in office. Although liberal voters are disappointed, the plain truth is that Obama, aided by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, passed much more liberal legislation at the outset of his term than his immediate Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter…In the partnership between the Obama White House and the Reid Senate, Obama supplied the eloquence and grace and originated the policy ideas. Reid’s role was to get it done. Between Obama’s Inauguration, in January, 2009, and the congressional recess early last month, more consequential liberal legislation passed than at any time since the Great Society: health-care reform, the economic-stimulus package, financial regulation, a big education bill, the rescue of the auto industry, and the second phase of the rescue of the big banks. Others (a large expansion of protected public lands, funding for universal broadband access) didn’t get the attention they normally would have.”

And I was very impressed and grateful to read the story in New York magazine by Jesse Green on Tony Kushner, whose analysis of this political moment I share:

“And the LGBT community, what are they, we, looking for? Yes, we’ve been asked to wait a very long time, asked to eat oceans of shit by the Democratic Party; we’ve been 75 percent loyal for decades without a wobble and without a whole lot of help from these people. And it’s important that somebody keeps screaming; the trick is how do you scream, and who do you scream to? If we’re dissatisfied with these Democrats, let’s get better ones instead of fantasies about mass uprisings that are going to resemble the October Revolution. Yes, it might sometimes feel good to throw the newspaper across the room. There’s much criticism of Obama that’s legitimate. He backs down on things, he waffles, like on the mosque, and you wince. And I consider his decision to appeal the Federal court ruling abolishing DADT to be unethical, tremendously destructive, and potentially politically catastrophic. But is Obama really supposed to say, as the first African-American president, that same-sex marriage is his first priority? Clearly he believes in it; he’s a constitutional scholar. It’s not conceivable to me that he believes that state-sponsored marriage should be unavailable to same-sex couples, even if he has religious scruples. But do I think he should have lost the election for the chance to say he supported same-sex marriage? No. Given that we would have had John McCain and Sarah Palin, I would have said, ‘Say anything you need to.’ So if he’s moving very cautiously, with two wars he’s inherited and a collapsing global economy and the planet coming unglued—Okay!

I continue, in my obsessive way, to appreciate and digest the Broadway show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for the way it cannily captures the proud, delusional self-righteousness of under-informed ideologues — Jon Meacham, whose biography of Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize last year, writes a detailed (and approving) response to the play in today’s New York Times, “Rocking the Vote, in the 1820s and Now.”

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