Review: "Angels in America" at Second Generation
By ANTHONY CHASE
Second Generation Theatre Company particularly interests me because of its grand aspirations. They are currently taking on Tony Kushner’s inarguably grand play, Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches, at Shea's Smith Theatre. Indeed, this is one of the great plays of our time.
This company has done well with big plays in small spaces. Typically, however, these have been musicals, including memorable productions of Assassins and Light in the Piazza, culminating with this year’s arresting production of Big Fish.
Their play selections have sometimes felt nostalgic to me, like the choices of plays that were beloved in college. I have been waiting for the group to settle into an artistic vision to match their professional aspirations.
Their production of Angels and America is steady and reliable, if uneven. We do not luxuriate in the play’s often luscious language here, but we are treated to some excellent performances, with a script that could sustain itself, even in a table reading.
Ben Michael Moran is splendidly bold as Prior Walter, a man crashing flamboyantly into the abyss of AIDS. When he appears, the stage seems to get larger. His drag gestures are operatic. This is a man who conquers his fear with sheer bravado and Moran is magnificent.
I was impressed by Anthony J. Grande’s interpretation of Louis Ironson, Prior’s weak boyfriend. He was believable at every moment. His gradual abandonment of Prior is both convincing and loathsome. His guilt is as earnest as it is unmoving.
Dudney Joseph, Jr. gives a beautifully well calibrated performance as Belize, Prior’s outrageous African American friend. This role is always played over the top, but Joseph has tamed him down just enough to allow for the intimacy of the space, and Belize loses none of his ferocity or his splendor in the process.
Kristin Bentley is ideally cast as Harper, the fragile, valium popping Mormon wife of a closeted gay husband. Her performance, with its alternating flashes of humor and angst, sets a perfect tone in every scene.
I was informed that David Oliver was ill on the night that I saw the show. They had, I'm told, considered cancelling. Though his turn as Roy Cohn lacked color and had the feeling of a reading that night, we can all be grateful that he was able to perform. He was rather better as Prior 2, the 18th century ancestor of Prior Walter, a characterization with more contour than his Cohn.
I admire actors Steve Copps and Jacob Albarella, and they did give consistent and clear peformances, Copps as closeted Joe Pitt, and Albarella as the rabbi and other characters. I do not think they were used to best advantage on this occasion. Each gives a steady performance, without quite filling the stage with insightful interpretation. Having said that, I should hasten to add that Albarella was quite perfect and very funny in his short scene as the leather man in the park.
Kristen Tripp Kelley is excellent as Emily, the pragmatic and compassionate nurse from the working class who dutifully attends to Prior in the hospital, before she ascends into the stratosphere and descends onto the scene as The Angel. Her scenes of navigating Pior’s unmooring are sensitive and appealing.
Ever reliable Mary McMahon was especially good as Ethel Rosenberg, and a twinkle of humor sparkles beneath both this character and her interpretation of Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt.
The production, directed by Greg Natale, moves lithely through world created by set designer Primo Thomas. Rolling flats turn and reconfigure to define locations. We never get a sense of an assured trajectory into the themes of this play, in which no two characters’ desires are compatible, where truth and betrayal are in constant competition, and where circumstances are always shifting, including the ground beneath our feet and the roof above our heads. The disconnected pieces never feel quite unified. By the time The Angel arrives to proclaim that the great work will begin, we do not really feel as if we have arrived at a destination. What we do get is a proficient journey through the text of a marvelous play with some very fine performances, and in many ways, that is more than enough.