“Angels In America: Millennium Approaches”At The Neil Simon, Saturday, March 10th, 2018, Reviewed
“Henri Chahinian and Jack Johnston.
Henri and Jack met quite accidentally on Saturday, April 24, 1984 and knew immediately from this chance meeting that they were destined to be together. They were together from that day forward save for Jack’s extensive international travel. As a couple they were very much about family.
Henri departed this world in December 1990. Jack left us in November 2003.
As Jack read at Henri’s memorial, “Sometimes God plucks his flowers while they are still in bloom.”
Henri was one of my best friends in High School, a smart stylish kid heavy into Motown. And not bad looking, he did OK with the girls which pisses me off no end because if he was gay he should have given me a chance. The Lebanese civil war worked as a diaspora and we all went our own way, so the last time I saw Henri was in 1975.
Years turned into decades and along the way here came the internet so somewhere in the 00s I went in search of my old friend only to discover that Henri had died in 1990, soon to be followed by his boyfriend.. Put this one directly on Reagan and his refusal to adequately fund AIDs research. Thinking of Henri, what is shocking is the loss of him, even for me, who didn’t see him again after 1975. It feels like a dark shadow over our lives to lose people we loved in such a random pick your poison way, it is where the politics of politics become concrete.
I saw “Angels In America” during its first Broadway run in the early 1990s, not even a decade after the height of the epidemic decimated the lower east side art, culture, rock, and post-punk aesthetic in Loisaida. Not many miles away from the way you could walk out onto the streets after seeing “Rent” in previews and into the world that “Rent” was writing and singing about, you could walk out of “Angels In America” in 1993, 1994, and the reality of Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia” could be seen full on: this world was that world.
For the gay community (not queer identified yet), that began to seriously fight back from the ghettoized, closeted world which it was transforming, from Stonewall in 1969 to ACT Up in 1987, to the GLAAD’s adoption of LGBTQ in 2000, the no longer simply gay greater community joined the mainstream of American (OK, East Coast) as the Marriage Equality Act passed by New York State Legislature and signed into law by the Governor of New York in 2011. Nobody would claim that violence against same-sexers is over, especially transgendered men of color seem to be killed or kill themselves with dreadful constancy, even so it is no longer socially accepted to be homophobic. If Roy Cohn was alive today he would be an out homosexual, the way David Geffen, Barney Franks, and many other power broker homosexuals are open about their sexual preference.
So going to see “Millennium Approaches”, after all these years, (I am going to see Part Two in April), I expected it to be dated and it is dated to a degree. I was besotted by the original production, bored by the HBO production many years later, and open ended on what this version, transplanted from London’s National Theatre, might be. It is an odd production. The biggest difference is cultural, it is so much a part of a time and place where homosexuality was in a period of transitions, in my place in the 80s even as homosexuality was accepted, it wasn’t out the way it is now: there was still an underlying current where homosexuality was a deformity the way being a person of color was considered a deformity into the 1970s. When you leave “Millennium Approaches” you leave an historical time and place.
“MA” (AKA Part One), is the story of law clerk Louis Aronson (a dull James McArdle) whose four and a half years of co-habitation with boyfriend Prior Walter (an astonishing Andrew Garfield) comes to an end after Louis discovers his boyfriend has AIDs, panics, and leaves Prior to die alone. Meanwhile, Mormon lawyer, closeted, and Roy Cohn (a powerful Nathan Lane) protégée Joseph Pitt (another iffy piece of casting with Lee Pace, the UK got the brilliant Russell Tovey, who you might remember as the werewolf in “Being Human”), is having enormous trouble with his wife Hannah (Susan Brown) while getting to know Louis. Then thinks get dodgy. The stage setting doesn’t work for me, if you are going to give me Broadway prices, show me some expensive settings, show me the money. Off Broadway’s “The Pill” had a better staging, it is Junior High weirdness, all open doors and minimalistic drafts, which scrapes the bottom of the barrel when the Angel appears at the end of part one and it a motheaten bore. I remember clearly being overwhelmed by the Angel in 1993(ish), a beautiful, large flying angel that seemed to cover half the stage. This angel wanders in nonchalantly.
But for all of that, there is no escaping from Nathan’s Roy and Andrew’s Prior. If you complain about the rest of the acting, Marianne Elliott has gotten two of our best actors to up their game through the roof. I don’t always love Nathan, I didn’t much care for him in “The Front Page” a couple of years ago, but this is a towering performance that builds from a Bialystock and Bloom opener to an exercise and explanation of how real power works even as death creeps steadily closer. Nathan’s Cohn is an ode to a monster but a monster who couldn’t exist today, his power would have protected from any fallout due to his homosexuality. Cohn, Donald Trump’s attorney for ten years, and the man most responsible for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg being put to death for espionage, looked like a thin Truman Capote, but his hatred of homosexuals seemed nothing like self-loathing. He was deep into denial. Nathan gets this in his performance, how to be what what isn’t and is.
Stephen Spinelli was the Prior Walter of your dreams, an astounding performance as perhaps the greatest gay character in theatre history. Andrew Garfield isn’t better, but he gets awful close to being as good. From tenderness to terror, Garfield’s “Prior” has you deep inside a character, the cross-dressing, flamboyant in an old school same sex way; the problem with camp is that it feels like hiding in plain sight, camp is costume in an actorly manner so whatever you do with it, you become once removed and then once removed again. Walter, the scion of Mayflower denizens has his ancestors visit him and as he declines into AIDs ravaged illness and finally, an angel calls him for the great work. Never better than in the scenes with his friend Belize (the third of the three great performances in, MA, by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Garfield is close to the bone. Nathan is a great listener and a great self-aware man, his dialogue with James McArdle’s Louis is an expert in quietness. I have my doubts about James performance, part of that is built into the role, but in the hardest scene for James, an extremely bad brained monologue about racism, Nathan brings out the best in him.
Not unlike last years “sunset Boulevard,” the production feels cheap, and that is a huge problem. And too many performances aren’t as great as they need to be. But it is a great play with three great performances. Let’s see if they can pull of “Perestrokia” (aka Angels In America, Part II). As for my late best friend Henri, I hope , I know, there could not have been another way for him to live except true to himself.