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    Angels in America at the Provincetown Theater is Beyond Heavenly

    May 10, 2024

    It may be ironic that a play essentially about death—framed in both the opening and final scenes—can feel so vital and filled with life and energy; but that’s the case with the new production of Angels in America now playing at the Provincetown Theater under the direction of David Drake.

    True to playwright Tony Kushner’s direction, this production is actor-driven with extremely pared-down settings, thanks to Ellen Rousseau’s usual brilliant flair for creating spaces that just work. And that’s the first thing you notice: the space, secured on two end by stages, a center that transforms quicky and unobtrusively from cemeteries to streetcorners, from coffeeshops to political backrooms.

    What happens within that space is due to the genius of David Drake: he’s presented a story that’s powerful and gripping and presents not just what it (still) means to be gay in America, but what it means to be human as well.

    The first of Kushner’s two epic pieces, Millennium Approaches is in some ways very much about its time. This is 1985, and many of the characters—most of whom work in the judiciary in some respect—are in a state of sexual denial. Roy Cohn (played with fury and fear by Joe MacDougall) denies being gay, just a guy who has sex with other men; homosexuals, he insists, have no clout, and he prides himself as being the rainmaker behind the American political scene. He’s joined in his denial by Joe Pitt (Nick Wilson), a chief clerk Cohn is trying to maneuver into a Washington post, and Joe’s wife Harper (Danica Jensen, in a deliciously emotionally distanced performance), both of whom are ignoring Joe’s clear sexual preferences. And Louis Aronson (Karl Gregory, projecting intellectuality as a shield against emotion) is a word processor who lives with Prior Walter (Todd Flaherty) and who is initially in denial about his lover’s AIDS diagnosis.

    Audiences younger than this reviewer might be only vaguely aware of Cohn and other political figures mentioned in the script, but their importance is clear as the country struggled with a then-fatal disease that many saw as divine punishment; current audiences can take some comfort in inhabiting a world with more sexual openness, more gay rights, and a disease that is now treatable and preventable, but we are unsurprised by the political will to stifle democracy and elevate cruelty, and in that sense this is very much a story for our time, as well.

    Cohn is the dysfunctional pivot at the center of the play, even when he’s not onstage, for having masterminded death and destruction for so many, and MacDougall interestingly plays him as multi-dimensioned, his humanity trying to struggle free from the overriding quest for power. His opposite, in a way, is Prior Walter, a gay man and drag queen, young as were so many AIDS victims, and abandoned by his lover. It’s Prior who will be visited by The Angel (which Drake cleverly under-emphasizes), which he finally rejects; Flaherty plays him with sensitivity and even some naïveté.

    Devon Kendall-Jacobs is Belize, Prior and Louis’ friend, and ex-drag queen; he is funny, and smart, and feels somehow “normal” in a world where chaos is prevailing. Laura Scribner opens the show as the rabbi presiding at Lewis’ grandmother’s funeral, and she closes it as the apparition of Ethel Rosenberg, who Cohn famously prosecuted and for whom he wrangled the death penalty. In between she plays Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah, adrift and scrabbling for something familiar in an unfamiliar landscape; Scribner plays all three roles seamlessly. Hannah sold her home in Salt Lake City thanks to her real-estate agent and fellow Mormon, played by Jeanine O’Rourke, who also takes on the role of one of Prior’s ghostly ancestors.

    Cohn’s doctor, Henry (as well as the other ancestral Pryor specter and a businessman/lawyer crony of Cohn’s) is played with an appropriate briskness by Sean Flyr, and finally Darlene Van Alstyne, in a welcome return to the Provincetown Theater stage, is spectral as well: she’s both Harper’s imaginary travel agent and The Angel, and plays both with her characteristic elegance; even her homeless woman exudes class.

    While many in the cast have several minor roles, it would be easy for them to be eclipsed by the immensity of the Cohn figure, and it says much about the strength and versatility of all the actors that this doesn’t happen.

    One of the things that makes this production work so seamlessly is Thom Markee’s costumes and props; while (with the obvious exception of The Angel, and Belize’s colorful outfit) the clothing is subdued and very much Eighties Republican, it is worn convincingly and transports a Provincetown-casual audience into another time and place; the props are similarly discreet and workaday—with the magical amazing exception of snow falling on a hallucinating Harper toward the end of the play. That’s aided and highlighted by Stephen Petrelli’s sensitive and sometimes surprising lighting choices.

    The themes are immense: love, death, betrayal, abandonment, power, and religion (in an interesting juxtaposition, only two—one ancient, one modern—are named, although in a sense the play really is about God), but they’re brought home through the personal, individual lives of the “small” people left behind by the Republican sweeping view of society.

    There was little to criticize in this production and these performances. As far as I could tell, MacDougall mastered Cohn’s Bronx accent at least passably; other cast members did not fare as well when attempting “English” accents or French words. But these are small faults in this complex, impressive rendition of one of the most iconic plays of the American theatre. A triumph for David Drake and the Provincetown Theater.

     

     

    Review by Jeannette de Beauvoir

    Photos by Bob Tucker/Focalpoint

     

    Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches

    May 9-26 Thursdays-Saturdays at 7pm, Sundays at 2pm

    Provincetowntheater.org

     

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