Return of ‘Angels in America’ welcome indeed

NEW YORK :The great thing about a diamond is that it cannot be tarnished, by age or if put in the wrong hands. It can be remounted, the setting gussied up or stripped down, but the beauty remains.The Signature Theatre Company has just such a precious stone in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” an astonishing seven-hour epic whose power hasn’t dimmed since its two parts were first staged in the early 1990s.It is a play that seemingly won’t end about a plague that won’t be killed, a riotous, almost operatic work with eight actors playing some 30 characters, not necessarily their own gender.The action is set in Ronald Reagan’s second term and zooms from Brooklyn to heaven to Antarctica to Salt Lake City to the Kremlin and back, raising questions about morality and sexuality, politics and religion. There are ghosts and angels and real-life historical figures. There’s also love, love broken and madness.“You’re scared. So am I. Everybody is in the land of the free. God help us all,” says one character in a typical Kushner flourish.The Signature has bravely thrown itself into “Angels,” part of the company’s all-Kushner season. They’ve mostly succeeded, with brilliant use of projections and a Rubik’s Cube of a set, though the acting is often hit-or-miss and sometimes strangely distancing for such an intimate-massive play. Even so, this diamond of a poetic script is priceless.Three interlocking narratives form the backbone of the play, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and split into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” The core of the story is the relationship between Louis Ironson, a self-loathing, hyper-intellectual Jewish word processor (Zachary Quinto) who cannot handle the fact that AIDS is beginning to ravage his lover, Prior Walter (Christian Borle). He will bolt, but hate himself. Both Quinto and Borle turn in strong performances that get even better in “Perestroika,” one tortured by death and the other tortured by himself.

“How can you be happy?” Louis asks another character, as though astonished by the idea. “That’s ridiculous.”There’s also a Mormon husband and wife (Joe and Harper Pitt played by Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan) whose relationship is imploding just as they arrive in Brooklyn: He’s deep in the closet and she’s working on a nasty Valium addiction. Heck is a little too buttoned-up here, his straight-laced Mormonism only cracking at the end. Kazan is the weak link, her thin acting becoming a distraction in every scene she’s in.The third piece of the puzzle involves Roy Cohn, the play’s only character based on a real-life — make that larger-than-life — person. Cohn (Frank Wood) is a closeted lawyer and Republican operative who lobbied for the execution of the Rosenbergs and defended Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Hospitalized secretly with AIDS, Cohn is cared for by Belize, a left-leaning gay black nurse and former drag queen (Billy Porter).

Wood, in a scene-chewing role, gets his whole mouth around the play, insulting everyone and snarling at fate. Porter has the funniest role and delivers it with wry humor from every pore. “The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing,” Belize tells Louis. “He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.”These six characters overlap in ingenious ways and interact with other characters who fill out this stunning play, among them many performed by the versatile Robin Bartlett. She plays Joe’s mother, Hannah, who sells her home in Salt Lake City to help her son; a rabbi; Cohn’s doctor; Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost, who materializes at Cohn’s bedside seeking revenge; and the world’s oldest Bolshevik. The angel in the title is played by Robin Weigert, who materializes dramatically at the close of the first play and returns with some menace and wantonness in the second play.

Set designer Mark Wendland, lighting designer Ben Stanton and projections by Wendall K. Harrington pack so much work onto the stage that they deserve some sort of medal for valiant effort.Many of the plays’ vignettes are short and 16 scenes need feeding. Pieces are constantly in motion, whether it’s an enormous shower curtain across the stage where images are projected, or having huge sections of sets swiveling to reveal a hospital room or an office or a bedroom. Having an angel with rapturous wings appear suspended on a harness so effortlessly is no mean feat.Director Michael Greif keeps all this moving at a stunning tempo. His sure hand is on the tiller when two scenes often happen simultaneously or a Mormon diorama comes to life. The fevered pacing matches one of Kushner’s main themes — namely, our love of flux.

God, we learn in the second play, abandoned heaven many years ago, fed up with human rootlessness and intermingling. His departure is shared by the humans, who flee their responsibilities and hide the truth. Suitcases seemingly always populate the stage. The Earth is in peril, as frail as those ravaged by AIDS.Yet the final piece of this epic offers a measure of hope. The drug AZT, which helps battle AIDS, has emerged. Relationships break apart, yet there is some forgiveness and compassion. Even the dying Cohn is read the Jewish prayer for the dead.”The great work begins,” says Prior at the conclusion of this gleaming, so-very-American play, looking directly at the audience. That may be true, but the opposite is also true: A great work has ended – Entertainment