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Allister MacDonald and Kaleb Alexander in Angels in America.Nathan Nash/Buddies in Bad Times

  • Title: Angels in America
  • Written by: Tony Kushner
  • Director: Craig Pike
  • Actors: Jim Mezon, Wade Bogert-O’Brien, Ben Sanders, Christine Horne, Allister MacDonald
  • Company: That Theatre Company in association with Buddies in Bad Times
  • Venue: Buddies in Bad Times
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Both parts run to Dec. 17 in repertory; tickets for each part sold separately.
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks are mandatory for audience members

Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s now-canonical theatrical epic, keeps many different subjects dancing on the head of a pin over the course of its seven-plus-hour running time.

The American two-part play explores the tangle of the political and the personal in times of vicious new viruses – the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, specifically – and the gravitational pull of vulgar, rule-breaking right-wing figures in politics for both the left and the more virtuous right. (Far from irrelevant, three decades on from its premiere, no?)

First and foremost, however, Angels in America is about two of the worst breakups of all time – or, so it seemed to me in revisiting part one (Millennium Approaches, 1990) and part two (Perestroika, 1991) over consecutive nights this week at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto.

It’s on stage at the venerable queer theatre for the first time in a new production from Craig Pike – a directorial debut for the actor turned baked-goods entrepreneur (yes, Craig’s Cookies are his) and the second show of the new not-for-profit theatre company called That Theatre Company that he runs, fuelled in part by his cookie dough.

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Ben Sanders (Louis) and Allister MacDonald (Prior) in a scene from Tony Kushner's Angels in America.Nathan Nash/Buddies in Bad Times

It’s New York, 1985. Louis (Ben Sanders), a Jewish word processor at the federal appeals court, is frightened by the revelation that his WASP boyfriend, Prior (Allister MacDonald), has been diagnosed with AIDS. He takes his sweet time before cruelly abandoning Prior – and then both are miserable in their separate states.

Then there’s Joe (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), a closeted Mormon law clerk, who is emotionally and sexually distant from his wife, Harper (Christine Horne), but refuses to tell her why – or let her go. She pops pills and escapes with imaginary friends, while he finally starts to embrace who he really is and enters into an affair with Louis.

Angels in America could feel like binging an Ingmar Bergman miniseries were it not for all the surreal scenes where Kushner has this love rectangle interact in dreams and fantasies, in a metatheatrical realm Prior and Harper dub “the threshold of revelation.”

But even those segments of the play are Scandinavian and sombre here, because of often static staging by Pike on a bleak set designed by Brian Dudkiewicz: A pair of water-stained warehouse walls with beds at their base, a vast stretch of cracked concrete in between.

The traverse set-up for the stage, with two risers of audience facing each other and a catwalk in between, doesn’t help lighten the atmosphere – the constant backdrop of masked spectators adding to an overall sense of dis-ease and disease. (There is a policy to wear a mouth-and-nose coverings in effect.)

While this is the least funny Angels in America I’ve seen, there is still life and vigour in it thanks to MacDonald’s often exhilarating performance as Prior, who starts to believe he is a prophet and begins conversing with his ancestors, and Kaleb Alexander’s pitch-perfect Belize, a Black nurse full of empathy and the true prophet of the play.

Then, of course, there is the riveting real-life figure of Roy Cohn, a disreputable lawyer who was mentored by communist witch-hunter Joe McCarthy, and who is a mentor to Joe in the play (and was one of Donald Trump’s in real life). He is dying of “liver cancer” – power brokers like him do not get AIDS and are not homosexual as he says in one of the play’s great setpieces.

‘Good lefty’ Kushner reflects on Angels in America

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Allister MacDonald gives an often exhilarating performance as Prior.Nathan Nash/Buddies in Bad Times

Jim Mezon, known for his booming voice and long-time association with the Shaw Festival, is unsurprisingly superb in the role: Mephistophelian, with flashes of vulnerability.

A couple of Pike’s other colleagues from his days in the ensemble at the Shaw seem less well cast – or have yet to fully realize their roles. Bogert-O’Brien overemphasizes Joe’s misery, making his story arc darker than it should be, while Sanders has trouble locating the comic dimensions of Louis’s self-loathing, so ditto. (The two have a distinct lack of chemistry, too, a shame to see at Buddies, generally perceived as Toronto’s sexiest theatre company.)

Among the women in the cast, Horne makes Harper more rational than I’ve ever seen her, a counterintuitive choice that I ultimately got on board with; Brenda Bazinet puts in fine work as Hannah, Joe’s mother; and Soo Garay channels otherworldly energy as the angel.

In staging that angel’s entrance in the first part’s final scene, Pike pulls off a genuine coup de theatre that explains why the set is the way it is. He conjures more enjoyable moments of theatricality in the second part, too.

But too much, overall, is inert – stuck in one of three small areas Pike has carved out of the stage with the help of lighting designer Bonnie Beecher. This was tough on the neck and, from my seat on the first night in particular, I spent whole scenes watching the back of actors. A movement director or choreographer felt desperately needed.

It’s far from surprising that Pike bit off more than he could fully chew in making a seven-hour epic his directorial debut. Still a fresh Angels in America production, not seen in the city since Soulpepper’s excellent production in 2013, is welcome, even if an imperfect one.

During one intermission, I checked my phone and saw that Henry Kissinger had died. When the show resumed, the very next line, from Cohn, was: “If you want the smoke and puffery you can listen to Kissinger and [secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, George] Shultz and those guys, but if you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism, you look at me.”

A reminder that Kushner’s play about the United States in the twilight of the 20th century is still crucial in understanding the country a quarter of the way through the 21st.

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