Tony Kushner's Angels in America has an intimidating reputation: It's a work in two parts - Millennium Approaches and Perestroika - that earned its playwright a Pulitzer Prize; it boldly explores religion, politics, and homosexuality in Reagan's America; and its two leading figures are men recently diagnosed with AIDS. So where, in regard to The Green Room's current presentation of Millennium Approaches, do I begin in describing just how much freaking fun this show is?
Director Derek Bertelsen's hugely ambitious undertaking isn't without bumpy patches; there's some awkward staging, and a few emotional connections have to be taken on faith - though it's a tall order, you can sense participants not quite getting everything they can out of Kushner's material. (Not yet, at any rate; Perestroika opens on December 5.) Yet the production is altogether glorious - a brave, briskly paced, and thrillingly entertaining piece of theatre. Occasionally harrowing and frequently hysterical, Millennium Approaches left me more energized and alert at the end of its three hours and 10 minutes than I was before it began, and within its sensational eight-person ensemble, The Green Room's latest might feature what is, among considerable competition, the stage performance of the year.
Pat Flaherty, in his role as the notorious conservative lawyer Roy Cohn, shares scenes with four other characters, and through absolutely no fault of his co-stars, it's easy to forget they're around; the actor's deep-rooted malevolence and icy directness is so terrifying, and so shockingly funny, that you can barely take your eyes off him. Kushner's conception of Cohn is that of a monster who, beneath his surface, is more monstrous than you'd imagined, and to his enormous credit, Flaherty steadfastly refuses to be ingratiating - he's curt, cruel, profane, and devastatingly insinuating. Yet as horrifying as he is here, Flaherty still radiates utter happiness, the kind that can result when an intensely focused, giving actor lands in an expansive, exhilarating role that wholly matches his talent. It's a staggering portrayal, as beautiful as it is brutal.
The miracle of Flaherty's work exemplifies the greatness - and great enjoyment - in this Millennium Approaches. With scenes continually overlapping and dovetailing, Bertelsen orchestrates a graceful, rhythmic flow between sequences, and handles complicated stage business with shrewdness and skill; the cleverness with which a hospital setting turned, in mere seconds, into a bar earned appreciative chuckles from Friday's audience. (The show also benefits from some lovely technical enhancements; Jennifer Kingry's ingenious lighting provides specificity and subtle magic, and Bryan Tank has composed an alternately melancholic and tension-filled piano score, splendidly played by Randi Turner.) Yet Angels in America is, above all else, a showcase for actors, and it's in his work with the cast that Bertelsen's considerable achievement truly flourishes. Even when the on-stage happenings are bleak, Millennium Approaches is alive with an exquisite, infectious performance joy.
As the good-humored yet understandably shaken Prior Walter, James Bleecker is as delicately, deliberately understated as Flaherty is outsize; he disappears into the skin of this physically and mentally ravaged young man, and as Prior's sickness escalates, the actor appears to be vanishing right in front of you. It's an incredibly tricky role - one that could easily be portrayed with excessive self-pity - and I don't think Bleecker has even one moment here that feels less than completely honest. From his bitchy asides to his slow, pained crawls across the floor, Bleecker is mesmerizing, and the deceptive simplicity of his performance is perfectly scaled for the venue.
If there's an element missing in Bleecker's superior turn, it lies in the romance between Prior and Tyson Danner's Louis. While the actors play off each other well, and share a moving dance in Act III, their characters' aching need for one another is more implied than felt; Prior and Louis don't seem like longtime lovers so much as really good pals. Yet Danner humanizes and makes palpable Louis' anguish and self-loathing - his constricted physicality suggests Louis' supreme discomfort - and he's an extraordinarily subtle comedian, particularly during his sly, hilarious flirtations with Steven Quartell's conflicted Joe Pitt.
In looks and performance, Quartell is like Campbell Scott crossed with a young, pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins, and his touching earnestness as Joe is occasionally augmented with flashes of pure, boyish goofiness. (He all but shakes with delight when describing life under Reagan's regime.) The actor may currently be doing more work than he needs to in The Green Room's intimate space, as his expressions are noticeably (though not detrimentally) broader than his co-stars', but Quartell is a terrifically commanding, sincere presence, and his confidence nicely offsets the anxiousness of Tracy Pelzer-Timm as Joe's depressed, Valium-addicted wife.
As with Prior and Louis, the relationship between Joe and Harper Pitt isn't as fully felt as it could be, and the performers' scenes together are further compromised by Bertelsen's staging; at several points, the actors converse in a downstage corner while Quartell towers over Pelzer-Timm with his back to us, and most of the audience misses out on both Joe's and Harper's reactions. Pelzer-Timm, though, enacts Harper's madness with a rather dizzying mixture of terror, distress, and euphoria, and while their roles in Angels' drama will significantly expand in its second half, Jackie Madunic provides energy and eagerness, Sheri Hess offers gorgeous vocals and hints at eccentricities to come, and Jason Platt's turn as the flamboyant yet sensible drag queen Belize is so marvelously heartfelt and funny that five weeks feel too long to wait for more of them.
Yet five weeks it'll have to be. So with much more still to say, consider this, like Millennium Approaches itself, just part one of a longer piece to be concluded next month. The time should fly by, though. Kushner's eloquent, searching, unforgettable work - and The Green Room's loving and impassioned interpretation of it - will give those who see it plenty to talk and think about until then.
For more information, visit TheGreenRoomTheatre.com.