LONDON – One of the landmark plays of the late 20th century, “Angels in America ” is set in a deeply divided United States haunted by premonitions of apocalypse. It still feels completely relevant.
Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” — revived in a sold-out production at Britain’s National Theatre — is set against the backdrop of the 1980s AIDS crisis, the “Reagan revolution” and the end of the Cold War, but doesn’t feel like a period piece.
The epic drama — made up of two plays, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” running almost eight hours in all — is the London theater event of the year, with a high-profile cast that includes Academy Award nominee Andrew Garfield and Tony Award winner Nathan Lane.
The Daily Telegraph gave the production five stars on Friday, with critic Dominic Cavendish calling it “a start-to-finish sensation.” He said Garfield — an Oscar nominee this year for war movie “Hacksaw Ridge” — “gives one of the performances of his career” as Prior Walter, the young New York man diagnosed with AIDS and battling both fear and unsettling angelic visions.
The Evening Standard said the play’s “sheer imaginative reach can be exhilarating and it’s studded with devilish humor.”
The Times of London’s Ann Treneman was a dissenting voice, finding “quite a few moments of tedium” in a production whose “pace is, at times, glacial.” But she joined other reviewers in praising the cast for embodying Kushner’s flawed and deeply human characters.
The almost all-British cast includes James McArdle as guilt-ridden Louis, who abandons Prior in his hour of need; Russell Tovey as repressed Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt; and Denise Gough as his valium-addicted wife Harper.
Broadway veteran Lane makes his National Theatre debut as the real-life figure of Roy Cohn, a ferocious lawyer who prosecuted Communists for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and wielded power in New York and Washington. He also mentored an ambitious real estate tycoon named Donald Trump, and though that is not mentioned in the script it gives the play an extra dose of modern-day resonance.
Kushner’s fictionalized Cohn is both monstrous and a great American life force. The Guardian’s Michael Billington called Lane “magnetic,” while Cavendish said he was “superb … puppyish one minute, a Rottweiler the next.”
Above all, “Angels in America” is big — a sprawling drama that’s by turns questioning, ironic, mocking, heroic and operatic. At its heart is the struggle within American history between the impulse to put down roots and build walls, and the drive for movement and mingling.
Henry Hitchings in his five-star review for London’s Evening Standard, said that “instead of appearing dated, it seems pointedly topical in its scrutiny of intolerance, immigration, religious values and national ideals.”
At the play’s close, Prior offers a note of hope: “The world only spins forward.” Watching it now, audiences may not be so sure.
“Angels in America” runs to Aug. 19 and will be broadcast to movie theaters around the world starting July 20 as part of the NT Live series.