PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Angels in America — Tony Tony Tony

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Angels in America — Tony Tony Tony
 
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Signature Theatre's new Off-Broadway production of Angels in America.

Zachary Quinto
Zachary Quinto

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Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (both Tony-winning parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) alighted Oct. 28 on Signature Theatre's Peter Norton Space — a postage stamp compared to previous Broadway accommodations — but this spunky, young, ambitious theatre proved not to be too small for the gesture, happily.

Kushner's cavalcade of sex, politics and alienation in the early AIDS days of the Reagan Administration made itself right at home on the small stage, its spectacle spilling over the sides at times, and settled in for a nice winter's stay until Feb. 20, 2011.

Even Robin Weigert — The Angel who did the landing, crashing through the Manhattan apartment roof of the properly startled, AIDS-stricken Prior Walter — was impressed by the artful economy of it all: "It's all quite amazing what they were able to work out for such a tiny space. They really pulled off something remarkable."

"The great work begins," as The Angel proclaims in such moments — again. The job of scaling this zeitgeist juggernaut down to do-able Off-Broadway size fell heavily on Michael Greif's able shoulders, which, at the Pio Pio after-party, seemed slumped and listing a bit toward Disney World for some immediate R&R.

"I'm happy that we're here," the director declared with an uncamouflaged weariness. "I'm very happy to get to the next phase: Now, they get to run the play."

Not that it hasn't been "fun," he qualified. "There was something rather liberating about just having to chip away at the plays the way we did, adding layer and layer of detail to the plays. One play informed the other play in remarkable ways. The fact that the characters developed through the two plays made them feel like one play and not two plays. The tones of the plays are different, the demands of the plays are as well — but the characters, their hearts and minds and souls, transcend the plays."

The real headache was logistics, shoehorning the saga into the space allotted. "It was certainly challenging to me," Greif admitted, "the demands of all the times, places and themes of the play so a lot of care and thought went into how to transform the space from scene to scene minimally, efficiently, (I hope) theatrically, magically."

Four degrees of separation lie between the plays' two prime-movers. On the right (the side of The Angel) is the aforementioned Prior Walter (Christian Borle), a young man dying of AIDS, abandoned by his lover, Louis Ironson (Zachary Quinto), who takes up with a married Republican Mormon, Joe Pitt (Bill Heck) working in the law offices of Roy Cohn (Frank Wood). Cohn is the other focal point, as opposite from Prior Walter has one can get. Cohn is also dying of AIDS, although he denies it because that would imply he's a homosexual (and not, as he vehemently contends, a heterosexual who has sex with men — capisce?).

Disbarment is not the final insult for Kushner's Cohn. He is attended by a gay-if-not-downright-festive African-American nurse, Belize (Billy Porter), and visited on his death bed by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Robin Bartlett), lips pursed and playing with a smile for the man who had helped place her in the electric chair as a Soviet spy. All his sins have come home to roost and wait for the end.

As you may have deduced already from the angels and ghosts on hand, the linear narrative gets a little loopy at times. Harper Pitt (Zoe Kazan) skitters down to Antarctica on Valium at one point. Then, toward the end, a fever dream allows the whole cast to assemble in Heaven — a scene wittily staged that lumbers solemnly along like something straight out of "The Robe." ("Well, they're in heaven, after all. A little biblical-epic reference was quite deliberate," Greif pointed out.) And, when no logical way can be found to connect characters like Harper and Prior, Kushner just lets them fall into each other's hallucinations and commiserate over their lost loves.

The angel that visited Joseph Smith Jr., prophet of the Latter Day Saints and author of "The Book of Mormon," was Kushner's route into his angelic fantasy riffs, but in the latter-day light of Mormon-masterminded Proposition 8, was the playwright something of a prophet himself? He smiled at the notion and said, "Mormons have always been conservative, but they were a different kind of conservative back when conservatives were different from what they are now, and they've changed in the conservative movement. When I first started working on the play, the conservatives have never been good about gay people. They have had many grim episodes in their life, as is true of all religions, but I always thought of them as being sorta more Republican in the Eisenhower Republican mode, and, as the Republican Party has gotten more and more fanaticized, so too have the Mormons, and the aggressiveness that they showed in the Prop 8 campaign — which I think is still disgraceful — reflected that. There seems to be a newfound right-wing radicalism."

Earlier in the day, Kushner was pleased to report, "I talked to a radio station in Salt Lake where the Salt Lake Acting Company is doing a revival of Angels right now."

As for the New York revival, he couldn't be happier with the results. "It's been a while since I've been directly involved with a stage production, and I love working with these people. They're sublime actors — the best of the New York stage acting community — and it's a great joy. Every single one of them is a fantastic actor."

There are a few firsts racked up by the cast on this production. For Borle, a lively comic and song-and-dance man, it's his first drama. Why did it make this leap? "Well, who wouldn't want to do Angels in America? I felt incredibly lucky to even be considered — and to get it, I couldn't believe my luck. I feel, in this business, you go where the work is. I have been lucky enough to be in musicals — some great musicals — and to me it's all just kinda acting. I just don't break into song in this one."

Yes, he loves his angel-visitation moment. "Every time it happens, I can't believe that I'm doing it. Everyone knows that image. To be in that image is surreal."

Quinto, who played Mr. Spock in the recent "Star Trek" remake, couldn't have found a more conspicuous vehicle to make himself known in the New York theatre community. "I can't shake a stick at Angels in America, that's for sure," he cracked, giving Greif much of the credit for his safe landing Off-Broadway. "I think Michael is a visionary. He is unbelievably patient and insightful and exacting and supportive, and he's a confluence of so many wonderful attributes. It has been such an honor that my first play in New York was under his direction."

What will follow this in February, he's "working on right now." One still-live option is the role of George Gershwin in a Doug Wright-written, Steven Spielberg-directed pic about the creation of Porgy and Bess. "It's still on, theoretically. There's no time set for it, but I'm still in touch with those people."

Bartlett, who has done two films with Meryl Streep ("'Postcards From the Edge' and, actually, 'Sophie's Choice,' although I ended up being on the cutting-room floor"), finds herself in the slot that won Streep an Emmy (for the Mike Nichols movie of Angels), playing Joe Pitt's mother, Hannah, and the Goldberg ghost — as well as an assortment of men. "They have these wonderful jump suits that are shaped like men," she relayed. "I step into them, they zip me up in the back, put a beard on me, and I don't have to act at all. But I do. A little."

Following a Tony-winning Ron Leibman and an Emmy-winning Al Pacino is an unenviable task, but Wood rises to the raw-meat and snarls out an aptly ugly portrayal. "I like how mean he is," the actor readily admits. "I like that he gets to say all the horrible things he says. It's actually liberating, you know. Roy Cohn is so unafraid of telling people what he wants. I don't do that in real life.

"I don't know precisely how I get there. I did do research on Roy Cohn, but mostly reading the script. There's all this fury, and, if you give over to those dejected circumstances, it begins to have an effect on you. So I got to talking the way the script said and, eventually, with the help of Michael and Tony, found him."

Kazan puts up a pretty savage fight, too, as the odd-wife-out who survives her crisis. "She has a beautiful arc. There is so much grace to her journey, and the fact that she could go through all that and at the end say a beautiful thing like 'Nothing lasts forever.' I just think she has an incredible spirit, and I am honored to play her." Porter admitted he's "having the time of his life," playing the plainspoken nurse Belize. "I love his courage and his truth," he said. "He doesn't have any fear to stand inside of his own truth. That's very encouraging and very empowering."

Opinions varied among the cast about presenting both Angels end-to-end on a single day. The two Robins enjoyed it. Weigert called it "a very thorough journey" and thought "for the actors who play the same parts throughout, it gives them the full arc."

Bartlett thought it "like climbing a mountain, but it's well worth it when you get to the top, just floating on the writing and being in that world."

But a seven-hour stretch of Angels didn't phase Heck, who recently put in nine hours of The Orphans' Home Cycle on the same stage, without collecting a cent of overtime. "It really feels they're so connected, definitely part of the same journey so it's really satisfying to go right through it," Heck advanced amiably. "It feels like that is the way it's supposed to be done."

For Greif, the party must have seemed rife with men who had directed Angels in America at one time or another. George C. Wolfe, who directed the spectacular Broadway editions, showed up late after a preview of his and John Guare's A Free Man of Color. "I haven't moved on. I'm here to support."

Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony as Belize and is playing A Free Man of Color, was promised but never surfaced. However, that show's Paul Dano did appear, having already seen it twice because he has a vested interest in it — namely, La Kazan ("I really very proud of her," he proffered shyly.)

Another Angels-touched director was Michael Mayer. "Oh, I love this play so much," he trilled. "You know I directed the first New York production of Perestroika at NYU's Graduate Acting School? Debra Messing was my Harper, Ben Shenkman was Roy Cohn, Daniel Zelman was Prior — it was a great cast — and then I did the national tour, so these plays — I love them so much. It's still thrilling to see such a beautiful, beautiful production."

This is Kushner's year for Michaels. Greif will helm the second play in Signature's Kushner season, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, a co-production of The Public which will presented at The Public in order to get Angels in America extra innings at the Norton Space.

And Mayer will direct Signature's third and final Kushner offering, a revival of his 1988 opus, The Illusion. "It's an adaptation of a play by Pierre Corneille, a 17th-century French writer," said Mayer. "It's about the power of love in all of its complexities. Rehearsals start in March, and we'll start performances in April."

Lyricist Susan Birkenhead chatted it up with Mayer, who directed her son, Peter Birkenhead, as Louis in the national tour of Angels in America.

Kushner's partner, writer Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly, said he's toiling over a second book on movies (after his acclaimed and bestselling "Pictures at the Revolution" last year). "The book does not have a name yet," he admitted. "It's going to be about Hollywood and Washington, DC, just before and during World War II. It's about the Second World War changed the role of the Hollywood movie in American culture. And it's only taken me slightly longer to do than the actual war."

Major playwrights, almost predicably, turned out for a masterpiece from one of their own: Edward Albee, Romulus Linney, Lynn Nottage and Diana Son. Jim Brochu said his recent stint at Musicals in Mufti, was the second time he had done The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd: "The first time I worked it, I was in the back, selling orange drink, so I got to watch Cyril Ritchard and Anthony Newley do it. Then, to be able to do it myself! We're just hoping it has a life because the reactions were really spectacular." Meanwhile, "I'm going to do a benefit for Theatre J in Washington, DC. I'm almost ashamed to say it out loud because it shows how old I've gotten: I'm going to do The Sunshine Boys with Theodore Bikel on Feb. 28, Theodore Bikel's birthday."

Also making the first-night scene were Anne Hathaway, Patricia Conolly, uber-agent Johnnie Planco and wife Lois, Sarah Paulson, actor-turned-producer Tom Hulce, Carla Gugino, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (who skipped The Merchant of Venice on Broadway to do a movie in the city, "Violets and Daisies"), James Gandolfini, Saoirse Ronan and Carey Mulligan), Signature board member Edward Norton ("'On the Board Forever' — that's my title"), Wilson Cruz, Linda Emond (up for Intelligent Homosexual and then Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mike Nichols) and Sandra Oh.

The only member of the original cast present was Joe Mantello, and he's a director now, and rather detached about going back except as an audience member: "I've seen other productions of it throughout the years and, because I don't really act anymore, I'm not territorial about it. This was just a gorgeous experience tonight."

Frank Wood, Robin Weigert, Christian Borle, Zoe Kazan, Zachary Quinto, Robin Bartlett, Bill Heck and Billy Porter
Frank Wood, Robin Weigert, Christian Borle, Zoe Kazan, Zachary Quinto, Robin Bartlett, Bill Heck and Billy Porter
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