Perestroika, which means “restructuring”, is faultily structured—and sometimes transcendent

The Arts Club is producing Perestroika, which is part of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Lois Anderson makes one heck of an entrance as The Angel in Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika.

Like a fever dream, this production of Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika comes and goes. Sometimes, I was completely in its thrall. At other times, I popped out of the experience and thought, “Oh. I’m in a theatre. And not much is happening.”

This mix of delirium and boredom is largely a function of the script. In Perestroika, which is the second half of the two-play project, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the story picks up in 1985 where Part One: Millennium Approaches leaves off.  Prior, the central character, has AIDS. His partner Louis has abandoned him and taken up with Joe, a closeted gay Mormon lawyer. Joe’s mother Hannah has travelled from Salt Lake City to New York, distressed both because Joe has come out to her in a drunken phone call and because Joe’s wife Harper, a valium addict, is in a bad way. Joe’s mentor, the viciously homophobic homosexual attorney Roy Cohn—a figure drawn from real life—has been hospitalized because he, too, as AIDS. And Prior’s pal Belize, a nurse, has the unenviable job of caring for him. Above all of this flutters The Angel, a winged presence who keeps appearing to Prior and insisting that he is a prophet.

The script is full. And its heart is pure.

Perestroika is about forgiveness. Playwright Tony Kushner doesn’t let Cohn off the hook. Hateful to the last, Cohn disowns Joe when the younger man tells him that he’s in love with Louis. But, after Cohn’s death, Louis recites Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, for the conniving, destructive bigot, assisted by none other than the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, an alleged communist spy in whose execution Cohn played a pivotal role. Cohn’s suffering has made his humanity undeniable. 

And, in Act 2, there’s a scene between Hannah and Prior that had me chocking back sobs. Prior is in the hospital, doing badly. When he makes the mistake of stereotyping the middle-aged Mormon, she says, “Don’t make assumptions about me, mister, and I won’t make them about you.” And that’s the play’s hinge: the dying fag and the religious conservative start to see one another as human beings. Later in the scene, Prior tells Hannah, “I wish you would be more true to your demographic profile.” And, still later, he shows her the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on his chest, which, he believes, are the emblems of his shame. She leans in, looks, and says, “It’s a cancer. Nothing more. Nothing more human than that.” 

In these days of division—of neo-Nazis on the right and perfectionist ideologues on the left—this reminder of common humanity could not be more welcome.

That said, with three acts, two intermissions, and a running time of three hours and 40 minutes the night I saw it, the script for Perestroika is uneven. Act 2 is relatively taut in its exploration of the characters’ relationships. But, in Acts 1 and 3, playwright Kushner gets lost in the politics of heaven. There’s a long scene in Act 1, for instance, in which The Angel explains to Prior that God has abandoned the angelic host, and there’s a similarly dense, abstract scene in Act 3 in which Prior addresses the archangels of various earthly principalities. Even the interactions between the human characters move with less focus and force in Acts 1 and 3 of Perestroika than they do throughout Millennium Approaches.  

The performances in director Kim Collier’s interpretation are generally strong. But there are holes there, too.

Damien Atkins’s performance as Prior is the soul of this production. Prior says the simplest of lines at one point—“I’m sick”—and Atkins utters it with such depth and authenticity that he ripped my heart out. He also knows how to spin a line comedically. Just watch him add up the characteristics of Joe, his ex’s new boyfriend: gay, closeted, Mormon, Republican lawyer. 

Playing Roy Cohn, Brian Markinson is relentlessly malevolent, but touchingly desperate. And, as Joe, the bright angel to Cohn’s dark, Craig Erikson is dizzyingly in love.

Lois Anderson brings imperious authority and bird-like movement to The Angel.  

But Hannah’s relationship with Prior is at the centre of Perestroika, and Gabrielle Rose’s Hannah is problematic. Once again, Rose falls into a mannered delivery, growling melodramatically, overextending syllables, and hitting her Ps and Bs so hard that sometimes it sounds like she’s blowing raspberries. Most damagingly, she spends too much time on the surface of the character, playing Hannah as an uptight stereotype, which is, to me, the exact opposite of the play’s point.  

In Ken Mackenzie’s set for Perestroika, the massive pillars that he designed for Millennium Approaches are in ruins, and this wrecked version works well, evoking the chaos the characters are experiencing. The scale is thrilling, but it doesn’t overwhelm the players, and that’s also generally true of Collier’s direction. Collier’s interpretation features bold visual elements, including an Angel who flies a lot, but the director consistently serves the script rather than imposing her vision on it. 

Nancy Bryant’s costumes would deserve applause if the only thing she had designed were The Angel’s wings. The Angel’s long, white feathers are glossy and—I don’t know how this is achieved—but her wings fold and unfurl. There’s artistry and wit elsewhere, too: once Prior has accepted his role as a prophet, Bryant dresses him in elegant black robes that make him look like Anne Klein at a funeral.  

Neither the script for Perestroika nor this production is perfect, but Angels in America is still iconic. It’s a pleasure to see a work of this philosophical scale on-stage at the Stanley. And it’s a pleasure to take in the visuals of Collier’s production—when Prior climbs a ladder all the way up the theatre’s back wall, for instance, on his way to a meeting in heaven.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART TWO: PERESTROIKA By Tony Kushner. Directed by Kim Collier. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Friday, September 15. Continues until October 8.  

For tickets, phone 604-687-1644, email boxoffice@artsclub.com or go to http://artsclub.com/tickets/

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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