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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Angels in America review: Part One: Bitching

Saw the new production of Angels in America (maybe I mentioned it a few thousand times?) this week, at the Signature Theatre, which is a very small space placed so far to the left of Broadway it's nearly in the Hudson River.

Angels in America remains a remarkable work. It holds up well even though one of the central plot points centers around AZT, an antiretroviral drug that isn't as miraculous now as it was in 1985 (or even 1993, the year of the show's Broadway premiere). Angels has aged, certainly, but it's not a creaking gay relic the way, say, Boys in the Band is, or The Normal Heart (or Longtime Companion, or As/Is).

There are two parts to Angels in America. There's part one, 'Millennium Approaches,' which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, and part two, 'Perestroika', which is considered the weaker part. 'Perestroika' is the weaker part, I think, because 'Perestroika' is more philosophical, less plot-driven. It's as if Louis, the play's most didactic character, edited it.

While I'm not gonna go into interpretation of Angels in America--many have, why add to the spilled ink?--there's one thing I want to mention, because it's one of my favorite things about the play(s): Harper Pitt's vision of the ozone layer.

Harper is the wife of a conservative Mormon lawyer, right. Her husband, Joe, is gay, and inattentive, and she consoles herself with Valium. The Valium gives her spectacular hallucinations. One of her first speeches is this:

When you look at the ozone layer, from outside, from a spaceship, it looks like a pale blue halo, a gentle, shimmering aureole encircling the atmosphere encircling the earth. Thirty miles above our heads, a thin layer of three-atom oxygen molecules, product of photosynthesis, which explains the fussy vegetable preference for visible light, its rejection of darker rays and emanations. Danger from without. It's a kind of gift, from God, the crowning touch to the creation of the world: guardian angels, hands linked, make a spherical net, a blue-green nesting orb, a shell of safety for life itself.

The speech continues on for a few more lines, right, but the prominent image is the net--the angels sent from heaven to protect us, the angels forming a net of ozone.

Here's Harper's last speech, after she's left her husband. She's sitting in a plane, 'chasing the moon across America':

When we hit thirty-five thousand feet, we'll have reached the tropopause. The great belt of calm air. As close as I'll ever come to the ozone.

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening...

But I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things.

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

The contrast between these two speeches--God sending down angels vs. humanity sending them up--is a beautiful character journey for Harper. And a moving image when taken in context.

We learn in the play that God has left. On April 18, 1906, God gave up, went away, had a Deist moment of such finality that San Franciso was destroyed (San Fran, in case you haven't seen the play or the movie, is Heaven). When Harper, who I always imagine is escaping her terrible marriage for some peace of mind in San Francisco, says in her final speech, she sees the souls of the dead rising up from earth to form a protective net.

Those angels forming a net? They are from earth. They're not sent from Heaven. God did not send them--they're floating up like skydivers in reverse because they love us. They link arms and protect us from the bad rays of the sun because they have something in common with us, not because, as Harper says in her first speech, it's a 'gift from God.'

Angels don't understand humanity. They love us because they were told to love us, but they don't understand how to protect us because they're alien things, the true 'other.'

The revival of Angels in America isn't a good revival. It's a sloppy mess, with several great performances and a wonderful set.

The reason the new revival fails is because the actress playing Harper does not deliver. She doesn't understand her character. She plays up Harper's childishness, but fails to accept Harper's capacity for insight.

The reason the new revival fails is because Michael Greif, the director, does not seem to understand the 'gay' scenes are only part of the story of Angels in America. Harper's scenes are just as telling, just as important. She's the character establishing the the show's major thesis: Angels come from the earth, they aren't forced down onto it.

The angels rise up from earth, and chase moons; they aren't sent down from heaven to protect us. We can only protect ourselves.

Most everything about this production works. But Harper's role has been neglected, and so the show suffers.

And I'll of course go see it a few more times because it's still an amazing story. A great work beginning again.

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