By Tony Kushner. Directed by Kim Collier. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, September 14. Continues until October 8
For Perestroika, the second installment of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the Arts Club uses the same cast and creative team as it did in its critically acclaimed production of Part One: Millennium Approaches last spring.
Both are nothing short of iconic, being hailed by some as the most important pieces of theatre in the 20th century. There’s always a danger in mounting Very. Important. Works. It's a danger the talented director Kim Collier and her highly skilled team deftly skirted in Part One. Part Two is all the stronger for it.
The nature of progress and the titular perestroika (“restructuring” in Russian) is the overarching theme here, and it truly resonates in the tangle of small, human moments playing out between the eight actors on-stage. Audiences skittish about the show’s three-hour-and-50-minute duration and dual intermissions shouldn’t be, despite the ushers’ pointed reminders of the show’s length as they scan each ticket. (They should stop that.) Perestroika is tight. It may seem strange to say about a nearly four-hour play, but the show’s rampant theatricality rarely flags, nor does it come across as a marathon for the stellar cast or, more importantly, the audience.
We begin just after the events in Part One, the set made of ruins of the marble-columned backdrop from the previous production. In a brilliant touch, a single flame flickers throughout the production at stage right, a beacon in a fog of conflict.
An angel (Lois Anderson) has appeared to Prior Walter (Damien Atkins), an isolated gay man dying alone from AIDS in 1980s New York. Unsure of whether his otherworldly visitor is a fever-induced dream or a metaphysical miracle, Prior is nonetheless heralded as “a prophet” and told, in short, that a bored God has abandoned Heaven, and that humanity needs to stop moving forward in order for Him to return to His rightful place.
While the Angel hopes for humanity to grind to a halt, the story lines are frenetic. Prior’s former partner, Louis Ironson (Ryan Beil), who was unable to cope with Prior’s disease, has taken up with Joe Pitt (Craig Erickson), a closeted Mormon law clerk whose latent homosexuality has upset the lives of the two women in his life. His naive wife, Harper (Celine Stubel), is now self-medicating, hallucinating, and getting arrested, and Joe’s mother, Hannah (Gabrielle Rose), has flown in from Utah to confront her son, who came out to her in a drunken late-night phone call.
Meanwhile, Joe’s mentor, closeted real-life Republican icon and “polestar of human evil” Roy Cohn (Brian Markinson), is also dying of AIDS and using his political connections to score experimental medication administered by his nurse, Belize (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), who just happens to be Prior’s best friend.
The acting on display is spectacular, with Atkins’s Prior and Rose’s Hannah as standouts. It’s so good, in fact, that the show’s one weakness becomes even more noticeable: the bizarre and unsexy chemistry between Beil and Erickson. Louis and Joe’s initial hookup is so agonizingly and unintentionally awkward that the actors only seem to become comfortable with each other when it’s practically time for them to break up.
While not a small matter in a play about AIDS and homosexuality, it’s really the only blemish on an extraordinary production.