'Angels in America' at the Neil Simon Theatre: A play for the ages, as good as theater gets

Amanda Lawrence in "Angels in America" at the Neil Simon Theatre.

All the marquee adjectives apply: Fabulous. Exhilarating. Electrifying.

Angels in America is one epic play in two halves, each with three nearly 90-minute acts, and each act offering more intellectual depth, more emotional juice, and more laughs than most full-length contemporary plays. This gorgeous revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, imported from London, brilliantly directed by Marianne Elliott, is as rich a theatrical experience as anyone could hope for. 

If you can see them both in one day, do; you’ll go out for dinner in between part 1, Millennium Approaches, and part 2, Perestroika, as eager to rush back to the theatre to find out what happens to these characters as if you’ve known them for years.  At the end of the nearly eight hours we’ve spent with them - and each other - the audience roars its joy and approval, cheering as if their team just won a championship.

The plot defies summarizing, but here goes:  Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a WASP whose family goes back to the Norman Conquest (there are many prior Priors), has AIDS; his lover, Louis (James McArdle), a guilt-ridden, political-theorizing Jew, works as a temp in the courthouse where he meets Joe (Lee Pace), a righteous, closeted Mormon lawyer who is married to pill-popping Harper (Denise Gough). Joe works for the infamous Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), who also has AIDS, and who is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown) whose execution he arranged. Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a campy gay nurse, works at the hospital where Prior and Roy both wind up during the bad old days of the AIDS plague.

And because this is a “Fantasia,” Kushner creates a whole hallucinatory cosmology in which God has abandoned both man and the angels. When a broken angel (Amanda Lawrence) descends to appoint Prior as a latter-day prophet, he ascends to Heaven (on a hot pink fluorescent ladder) to return the Book, choosing instead to live life on human terms, however imperfect those terms are.

And so Angels in America is about history and theology and sexuality and mortality and democracy and economics and guilt and forgiveness.

Andrew Garfield (whom you may know as The Amazing Spider-Man, as well as many Tony and BAFTA nominations) is Amazing in the role of Prior Walter, conveying all the many shades of emotional terror and ethical courage.  And if you think of Nathan Lane as a comic actor, think again. He creates a portrait of crass and evil Roy Cohn and then reaches beyond that to a profound Lear-like sadness and madness.

Any director of Angels has to decide about the Angel, and Marianne Elliott took Kushner’s idea of a broken heaven literally: the Angel’s enormous, bedraggled wings are held up by a small army of “Shadows” who slither around the stage in a near-saurian invisibility. Elliott has created visible links between the scenes, as the two couples come together and part, walking into each other’s worlds, seen only by us.

The stunning set designed by Ian MacNeil divides the stage into boxes outlined by fluorescent tubes that turn and rearrange themselves; Paule Constable’s lighting creates mysterious, grim darknesses with spotlights slashing across the stage, separating real rooms from fantastic rooms.

And through it all, the enormous cast speaks Tony Kushner’s gleaming dialogue— aria after aria — with speed and intelligence and daring. Angels is, as this 25th anniversary revival proves, a play for the ages.

Angels in America. Through July 1 at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd Street, New York.