Review: Angels in America

by Lynn on December 2, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by That Theatre Company and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Playing until Dec. 17, 2023.

Written by Tony Kushner

Directed by Craig Pike

Set by Brian Dudkeiwicz

Costumes by Louise Bourret

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Kaleb Alexander

Brenda Bazinet

Wade Bogert-O’Brien

Soo Garay

Christine Horne

Allister MacDonald

Jim Mezon

Ben Sanders

This is Tony Kushner’s two-part mountain of a play given an impressive, compassionate, beautifully rendered production.

The Story.  The play takes place in America at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and talks about gay issues, AIDS, politics, compassion, community, forgiveness and Roy Cohn.

I call it “a mountain of a play” because it’s so mammoth that it’s presented in two parts over two days, or as an all-day affair on selected matinee and evening days.

The first part is called Millenium Approaches and introduces the various characters, and the seemingly separate relationships, as well as the anticipated arrival of an angel with instructions in how to proceed. Millenium Approaches also introduces the politics of the time, the separateness felt by the gay community, the horror of this mysterious disease called AIDS and this evil man named Roy Cohn who is told by his doctor that he has AIDS. Cohn informs his doctor that in fact he has liver cancer, and if the doctor says otherwise, Cohn will destroy him. And he says, that only homosexuals get AIDS. He, Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. He is a heterosexual who sleeps with men.

The second part is called Perestroika and examines those relationships and how they all intersect. In Russian, Perestroika is described as ‘restructuring’ and was applied to the political and economic situation in the Soviet Union. For the purposes of the play, Part II, Perestroika, is a restructuring of the relationships in the play, society, community and culture.

 It’s theatre for people who are serious about theatre, and there are a lot of them.

Millenium Approaches

It first premiered in 1991 in San Francisco at the Eureka Theatre Company who commissioned Tony Kushner to write the play.

The players:

Joe Pitt is married to Harper.

He is a lawyer/law clerk for a judge. Joe is a Mormon, who is a protégé of the dastardly Roy Cohn. He wants to give Joe an opportunity to go to Washington to work in the Justice Department. Roy Cohn wants Joe in the Justice Department so that Joe can act as his (Roy’s spy). Joe says he has to ask his wife, Harper. Harper is fragile emotionally and on valium. The marriage is in trouble. Harper is lonely.

Hannah Pitt is Joe’s mother.

Louis Ironson is in a relationship with Prior Walter who is sick with AIDS.

Louis works as a word processor in the Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals. Louis is not sure he can stay with Prior if he is sick. Louis meets Joe briefly in the men’s washroom of the Federal Court—Louis was crying over Prior when Joe walked in and wondered if everything was ok.

Belize is a friend of Prior, Black a former drag queen and now a nurse tending to AIDS patients, one of whom is eventually Roy Cohn.

Millennium Approaches fleshes out the characters and their relationships. There are huge speeches about politics, ethics, Ronald Reagan, justice, the law, and coping with disease. Prior in his haze imagines that an angel is coming to make things right….

And still on the hallucination theme, Ethel Rosenberg appears to Roy Cohn in his stay at the hospital because he was directly responsible for her death.


The characters and the situations are further developed. For instance, Joe leaves his wife Harper because he realizes that he is gay too. He begins a relationship with Louis—Louis sensed that Joe was gay when they accidentally met in the washroom. Louis is an intellectual, presumably politically knowledgeable and has huge speeches when he mouths off about all sorts of things.

The Production. While I divided the play into both parts for the description, I’m considering both parts together.The production is very impressive. This is a herculean accomplishment for Craig Pike who is producing and directing this production. This is his debut as a director. Both parts are beautifully realized, thoughtful, detailed. And it’s loaded with surprises.

Tony Kushner’s stage directions in the text say that the production should be as simple as possible. So rather than have many set pieces and props to establish a scene, Craig Pike has actors bring on a bench, a few chairs and two beds when they are needed. And that’s it.

Each scene is enhanced with Bonnie Beecher stunning, evocative lighting and John Gzowski’s subtle sound design. For instance, the scene with Joe and Louis in the washroom is created on a bare stage with Louis miming washing his hands and the sound of water running, presumably in a sink.   A conversation in a restaurant has two characters in two chairs facing each other, with the ambient sound of tinkling cutlery or cups and saucers, etc. When the angel is ‘approaching’ there is a sound effect of what seems like huge wings flapping. Is the angel going to descend from the ceiling? Crash through a wall. We are prepared. But no, the angel (Soo Garay) struggles on, pushing two walls apart, looking formidable, but surprising.  

This is a true ensemble of gifted actors. The whole cast listens to each other with such intensity, that the audience is gripped too. 

Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Joe is a mass of confusion and contradiction. He is so unsure of himself and so full of guilt at what he knows to be the truth about himself, that his speech is halting. He seems to be editing himself or afraid to tell the truth. As Harper, Christine Horne is compelling. Harper knows she is sick/delicate but she is not afraid of facing and staring down Joe. Brenda Bazinet plays multiple parts, and especially Hannah, Joe’s mother. Bazinet is formidable. Each one of her characters is distinct, detailed and full of nuance.

Allister MacDonald as Prior is emotional and fragile. His mood swings are severe. Between being sick with this mysterious disease and losing his lover, Prior is both knowing of his situation and fearful of it. He has moments of clarity and of despair.

Ben Sanders as Louis is an intellectual motor mouth, always discoursing on philosophy, politics and race relations, but is a total disappointment as a friend, partner or a person of character. Ben Sanders brings out all of Louis’ fragility as a man conflicted and always challenged for his lack of character.

Jim Mezon is a raging bull as Roy Cohn, the embodiment of evil in America. He talks fast, is abrasive, sometimes charming, mostly impatient. When he is in his office or in a meeting etc. sitting, listening to someone talking, his foot ‘taps’ quickly, the impatience to get on with it is focused in that tapping foot.  

For me the beating heart and soul of Angels in America is Belize—who is beautifully played by Kaleb Alexander. Belize listens with absolute stillness while Louis mouths off about race in America—he’s talking to a Black man and he’s explaining race to him. When Louis is finished, Belize (Kaleb Alexander) in the quietest voice and seductive drawl lets Louis know he’s full of baloney—I think he used a stronger term. He calmly explains that Louis does not know what he’s talking about because he comes from a place of privilege and he’s blinkered to the reality of the poor people and the oppressed. The dialogue is scathing. One can feel Belize’s contempt, but not cruelty. One is also aware of Louis’ embarrassment at being put in his place.  

I think Angels in America both parts and as a whole is a huge accomplishment in the theatre and That Theatre Company which is co-producing it with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, should be commended

Comment. Playwright Tony Kushner writes about the AIDS epidemic, gay issues (he called the whole play “A Gay Fantasia”) and politics, etc. But he imbues his characters with such compassion for each other.  There are characters who are lost but never stop trying to find their way. Is the play dated since AIDS is tamed by medication? I don’t think so. People who are treated as “other” for whatever reason (sexuality, gender identification, race, religion) are still bullied and under threat. The play is still timely, unfortunately. Bravo for That Theatre Company and Buddies in Bad Times for collaborating to produce it.

That Theatre Company in Association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre presents:

Plays until Dec. 17, 2023.

Runing time: Millenium Approaches is 3.5 hours long (with 1 intermission and a five minute pause) and Perestroika is 4 hours long, (with 1 intermission and a five minute pause.)

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