Nota bene: The best play of 2018

On January 21, 2015, Justin Fox went to see Hamilton in its first week of previews at the Public Theatre. He loved it, of course, and a few days later he sent out an email newsletter saying that it was “the most compelling theatrical performance I've ever seen” and was surely going to “move to Broadway, win every possible Tony Award, and sell out for years on end.”

That was good actionable email content as far as I was concerned — it prompted me to get my own tickets to the Public, which was lucky, since obviously they’ve been almost impossible to snaffle ever since opening night.

All of which is to say: I’ve just gone to see Angels in America on Broadway in its first week of previews, and, if you can, you really should go see it. The two plays actually share a certain amount of DNA, in the form of Oskar Eustis, who directed the premiere of Angels in 1992 and who shepherded Hamilton to the stage in 2015.

Part 1 of Angels, in particular, is, well, quite possibly the most compelling theatrical performance I've ever seen. Yes, even pipping out Hamilton. The only other competition would come from the 1992 production, where I sat in one of just 262 seats at the Cottesloe Theatre and the play seared itself into my mind.

By contrast, the Broadway production is big: It’s at the Neil Simon Theatre, which has 1,445 seats and a truly massive stage. (It’s often home to big musicals like Cats or The King and I.) I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is by far the largest production this play has ever received. (The New York location is a lot bigger than the Lyttleton, in London, where this production began, and which has 890 seats.)

Going big turns out to be a smart move. As a small play, Angels is an intricate dance of five major characters. One of those parts, Roy Cohn, is up there with Falstaff in the pantheon of the most thrillingly-written characters ever to have been invented by a playwright. The others, however,… aren’t. Harper loves Joe who loves Louis who loves Prior, but, as written, it’s not easy to see what any of them see in each other. That’s where acting comes in, of course, but also, in 1992, it was easier to overlook such issues amidst the novelty of seeing homosexuality and AIDS approached on stage with this level of candor and complexity.

In 2018, when gay marriage is the law of the land and seropositivity hasn’t been a death sentence for 20 years, tales of successful professional New Yorkers struggling to come to terms with their homosexuality risk losing their relevance. The solution to that problem is to go big: to foreground the larger themes of the play, and to inject a large dose of old-fashioned theatrical wonder. Which Marianne Elliott’s stunning production certainly does.

You should go see it, especially Part 1. Andrew Garfield’s performance as Prior, in particular, is revelatory and more than worth the (steep) price of admission on its own. I can’t imagine it not winning a Tony.

I will however admit to being on the fence about the against-type casting of Nathan Lane as Cohn. There’s an obscure Broadway bylaw saying that no one can ever say anything about Lane which isn’t gushing in its superlatives, but this is far from his greatest success. There’s something inherently likable about Nathan Lane, which makes it hard for him to portray an evil shark like Cohn. Here’s Mary Ellen Mark’s indelible portrait of Cohn, taken in 1986, when the play is set:

Al Pacino (who played Cohn in the HBO version of the play)? Sure. Nathan Lane? Not so much.

(Incidentally, I never saw the TV miniseries, so I have no view on its quality, or how it compares to the play. I do worry, however, that people who didn’t like the HBO production might be put off seeing the play; I hope that’s not the case.)

As for whether you should see Part 2: I can tell you that you’ll want to, after seeing Part 1. I certainly did, and went straight back to TKTS the following morning. (The ending of Part 1 has been rewritten slightly to make it less of an ending than it was when it was first staged as a standalone play.)

Is Part 2 as good as Part 1? No. The first third is underwhelming, and the finale is a bit unsatisfying. But the central section has some of the best acting and writing in the whole play, and the two parts are certainly designed to be seen together.

One thing I will suggest: When they tell you to turn off your phone at the beginning of the play, turn it off — and leave it off, until the end. No peeking during intermission. Treat each part as a four-hour theatrical immersion, without external distractions. It’s worth it.