Theatre Review: ‘Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The cast of “Angels in America” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

I am among one of thousands—probably millions—of theatrephiles for whom “Angels in America” (written by Tony Kushner) is an incredibly important and beloved modern play. I came to it much later than most; I first watched the HBO miniseries circa 2014(ish) on a whim, over 10 years after its release, 23 years after Angels’ theatrical premiere at the Eureka Theatre Company , and 21 years after both its Broadway debut and its Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I knew essentially nothing of the story, only that the HBO adaptation starred Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, both of whom are national treasures. Instantly in love, I followed up the miniseries by reading the abridged play, then the unabridged play, then every book I could find about the play (including Isaac Butler and Dan Kois’ masterful The World Only Spins Forward). I present this barrage of personal backstory only to say that I came to Second Generation Theatre Company’s production with extremely loaded expectations.

. . .powerful and gripping. . .

Until last night I had never seen a live staged production of “Angels in America,” and it’s no wonder; it’s simply not produced very often, particularly by non-professional theatre companies. Probable reasons include:

  1. Telling the story requires either staging a mammoth 7-hour 2-part play (Angels is comprised of Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika), or staging only Millennium Approaches—which many companies do, and is the route Second Gen chose— and leaving your audience with an incomplete story.
  2. It’s extremely difficult to stage from a technical standpoint, particularly the scenes featuring the angel.
  3. The play is not exactly light fare; it tackles philosophy, religion, politics, life, death, sexuality, AIDS, abandonment, and what it means to be a human in America, among others. Doing justice to the show requires thoughtful, talented actors who are up for an immense challenge.

Second Generation Theatre Company and its talented cast were up for this challenge, and their production is a powerhouse.

“Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches” is set during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in New York City during the late 80’s. We first meet Louis (Anthony J. Grande) and Prior (Ben Michael Moran) and Harper (Kristin Bentley) and Joe (Steve Copps), two couples whose relationships are on the rocks: the former because of Prior’s AIDS diagnosis and Louis’s inability to cope with illness, the latter because of Joe’s closeted homosexuality and Harper’s incessant fears and hallucinations, as well as her addiction to Valium. As we follow these couples’ trials, we come across a handful of other colorful characters, including Roy Cohn (David Oliver), a malicious, secretly gay Republican lawyer, political power broker, and mentor of Joe’s who is dying of AIDS; Belize (Dudney Joseph Jr.), Prior’s ex-lover and a former drag queen who is stuck in the middle of Prior and Louis’s failing relationship; Hannah (Mary McMahon), Joe’s straight-laced, no-nonsense Mormon mother from Salt Lake, and The Angel (Kristen Trip Kelley), a divine emanation who appears to Prior as a messenger of God to inform him that “The Great Work” is about to begin. Using these characters as mouthpieces, Kushner characteristically dives deeply into political and intellectual themes.

For the sake of conserving column inches I’ll refrain from going down the innumerable thematic rabbit holes that “Angels in America” presents, because that would quickly turn this review into a dissertation (which I’m certain has already been written by legions of MFA students).  God’s rejection of man and the subsequent AIDS virus, community and abandonment, religion (Judaism, one of the world’s oldest religions and Mormonism, one of the world’s newest religions), identity (particularly sexual and racial identity), the list is endless. But the overarching theme of “Angels,” which Second Gen’s production encapsulates beautifully, is that the world only spins forward, rather we like it or not.

“Angels” is a show of complicated, multi-faceted characters, each of whom play an essential role in the dense narrative tapestry of this play, sometimes operating independently of each other but often colliding. Each performer in the Second Gen cast gave a nuanced and powerful performance.

Grande’s Louis juggles sarcasm and Jewish wit with desperation and confusion. Kristin Bentley’s Harper is wonderfully neurotic and frantic, but also clear-eyed and intentional. David Oliver’s Roy Cohn is icy as a cadaver, but still manages to elicit laughter with his mile-a-minute cussing and pompousness.

The production’s standouts, however, are Dudney Joseph Jr., who perfectly captures the glam and confidence, but also the warmth and boundless humanity, of Belize; and of course, Ben Michael Moran’s Prior Walter. Prior is maybe one of the most difficult characters to play in any modern drama, an Olympic event for any actor. Prior grapples with a devastating virus and the abandonment of his lover, communicating with both angels and the ghosts of Prior Walter’s before him. Moran is commanding as he plays Prior’s fears, anger, warmth and humor. He’s s a joy to watch.

In addition to having an thorough understanding of Kushner’s play and bringing the best out of his talented cast, director Greg Natale also manages to stage this play in the intimacy of the Shea’s Smith Theatre, no easy technical feat.

I’m not sure if Second Gen is planning on staging “Part II: Perestroika” next season, but I sincerely hope they’ll consider it, because this cast and production team are certainly capable of finishing this immense story. Second Generation Theatre’s production of Angels is powerful and gripping, a story that everyone living in 21st century America needs to see. Buffalo is quite lucky to have this timely production for the next few weeks.

Running Time: Just over 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Second Generation Theatre Company’s production of Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches is playing at Shea’s Smith Theatre until March 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.