This story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly. Photo by Alexei Hay for EW.
As you could probably guess by its subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Angels in America is a hard play to describe. At its most basic level, Tony Kushner’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning magnum opus is about two couples at a crossroads: Prior and Louis, who fall apart once Prior reveals that he has AIDS; and Harper and Joe, Mormons who’ve relocated to Brooklyn from Salt Lake City (she’s an agoraphobic Valium addict; he’s a closeted legal clerk). At the center of their overlapping stories — or, really, to the side, underneath, on top, insidiously — is Roy Cohn, Kushner’s reimagining of the real-life lawyer, he of Red and Lavender Scare infamy.
First mounted in San Francisco in 1991 before opening on Broadway in 1993, the nearly eight-hour play in two parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) was Kushner’s response to an administration, Reagan’s, that looked the other way — or worse, laughed — as thousands of gay men died of AIDS. More than 20 years later, in the hands of director Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), Angels is still as particular to the time and place in which it’s set as it is universal, as punishing as it is life-affirming. Perhaps most important for this production and its players, Angels is about right here and now, wherever you happen to be.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You just started previews a few nights ago: How did it feel to finally have an audience after rehearsing for so long?
DENISE GOUGH (Harper Pitt): It’s great to have an audience finally. It was getting really tiresome doing it to an open space of nothing. So it was great — and it was really great to do it in New York. Because they know the play so well here so it made so much more sense. And it felt, well, I was really overwhelmed by the first night.
ANDREW GARFIELD (Prior Walter): That first preview, there was something very special, palpable that was happening.
NATHAN LANE (Roy Cohn): Yeah, it was like they all knew the play intimately. They applauded the entrance of the character Belize, [played by] Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.
GOUGH: Which we were furious about. He’s a nightmare now. [Laughter]
LANE: They certainly get more of the humor of the play, and the references. You know what made me laugh? When I’m telling Lee’s character, Joe, that I want him to go to the Justice Department and to protect me because I’m in danger of being disbarred as a lawyer, and the things I’m asking him to do are illegal, let alone unethical. And I really rip him a new one, and at the end of it, he says, “I’ll think about it, I will.” And when you said, “I’ll think about it,” the audience seemed to be on my side, the devil’s side. They were like, “He’s not going to do it?”
GOUGH: It’s true, we’d never had that reaction.
This is a play about the U.S., but it’s also, like all good plays, incredibly universal. I’m wondering, especially for the Brits among us, is there a different way into the material?
GOUGH: Oh god, I don’t know. I don’t really approach it as being from the place I’m from. I know that performing it in front of an American audience feels different for me, because as I said, they know it so well. So the other night, that first speech, I’ve always felt really vulnerable on my own on the stage. And in London I always felt like they were trying to work out who this person was. But the other night it felt like everybody went, “Oh, that’s Harper,” and I literally felt like Sally Field winning an Oscar, going, “They like me, they really like me.” That felt really lovely, performing to people who know the play so well.
But I don’t think of things in terms of [being] Irish — I think my accent is fine — so if I was just allowed only to play Irish roles, that would be a real problem, because there really aren’t any. I just think about the audience, it’s definitely more, I feel like sort of more fun in front of New Yorkers. Because it’s an homage to New York, as well. It feels like it’s in its rightful place.
Obviously this play is very relevant right now. What’s it like to be performing in something that’s of the moment in so many ways?
GARFIELD: I think it’s the point. I think it doesn’t get any better as an actor; to feel purposeful as an actor is a rare thing, I find. To find a story that is so in tune with the cultural moment, what the universe and the world seems to be crying out for, what humanity and the culture seems to be crying out for. Unfortunately, it is this play, which is a devastating one about living through a very dark and devastating time, which I think the majority of people in the United States and I think in Europe and the West would concur with: It’s a time where we need community, it’s a time where we need to remember the things that make us human and all of our commonalities. So, it does feel like going on a march every night. It feels like we’re on a march every night for seven-and-a-half hours. So even though it’s very costly for us and for an audience, I think it’s one of those things that’s very worthwhile to do because I think if we weren’t doing this we would be struggling to find something that was as meaningful to do as performers. And if we weren’t doing that, we would be going on marches. It’s the time to march.
LANE: He’s like Oprah. People are weeping at the end. You ask him about this play and people want to give him a Golden Globe, people are bringing their sick children to be healed by Andrew. It’s unbelievable. Not even Tony Kushner is this eloquent about this play.
What about for the rest of you? What has the experience been like?
GOUGH: Lee is new to it all. [Editor’s note: Lee Pace was not part of the National Theatre production in London.] We’re exhausted by it. How do you feel about it, Lee?
LEE PACE (Joe Pitt): Well I haven’t gotten exhausted yet because I’ve only done it three times in front of an audience. And I learn something different every time I’m on stage with everyone. It’s such an inspiring group of people.
GOUGH: We are.
PACE: Aside from the play being so inspiring, what everyone brings to it, is such a unique and personal experience. And so I, it’s just such a privilege to be a part of it.
What was it like to join a cast that had already done it together in London?
PACE: Fast. Because we rehearsed for about a month. It was going fast. But one of the great things about theater is we’ll be doing this for a bunch more months and I hope to keep discovering things about the play and this world on the last night that we’re performing it. I think that’s one of the opportunities of theater. With a play as rich as this, and as you said earlier, as topical as this. There’s not a time you can’t read something in the news and think about democracy, think about the state our country is in right now and look at this world that Tony has created and learn something by placing the issues of today inside this world, where change is important, where the taboos of America — sexuality, religion, politics — are like combined in this interesting alchemy.
LANE: Oprah Jr. This is the running mate right over here for most inspirational speech. There you go. What more do you want?