BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Signature Theatre Company begins its three-production season of Tony Kushner works with a revival of his monumental epic "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," which opened Thursday at the Peter Norton Space.
Among the most remarkable dramas of the 1990s, "Angels in America" is an astonishing creation urgently mixing rich, realistic talk with fantasy, social commentary and apocalyptic fears. Inventively interweaving the wreckage of two relationships, gay and straight (sort of), the two-part saga further involves heavenly messengers, the haunted death of Roy Cohn, the AIDS epidemic, the conservative agenda and much more.
The complex work is dangerously overwritten in patches, but for its greater part "Angels in America" is thoughtful, compelling theater, although the story's climactic scenes in heaven prove to be disappointing — or is that supposed to be Kushner's intent?Somewhat disappointing as well is director Michael Greif's production, which appears curiously muted in spite of several excellent performances and a few others not so satisfying.
Although set designer Mark Wendland neatly accomplishes small wonders in accommodating the story's many scenes in often strange places, perhaps the theater's 160-seat intimacy simply does not allow this production and its ensemble the scale they need to resonate completely.
Making an impressive New York stage debut, Zachary Quinto ("Heroes" on TV, Spock in last year's "Star Trek" film) suffuses Louis, a self-loathing intellectual who abandons his AIDS-stricken partner, Prior, with a deeply sensual nature and an innate sweetness that makes the character's guilty ramblings tolerable.
A stage veteran with solid TV creds ("Mad About You"), Robin Bartlett is thoroughly, beautifully believable as several extremely different people including the world's oldest living Bolshevik, a weary rabbi and a no-nonsense Utah matriarch sharply confronting Manhattan for the first time. She is also quietly eerie as the implacable ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
A wild-eyed Christian Borle shrilly over-emotes in the crucial role of Prior, whose fevered visions take the audience to a sadly dysfunctional heaven. In odd contrast, Zoe Kazan wanly underplays her role as the delusional, Valium-popping waif Harper. Frank Wood offers a vehement portrait of the ruthless deal-maker Roy Cohn that simultaneously seems true in raging spirit and false in his mannered physical details. Convincing as the morally and sexually confused Mormon lawyer, Bill Heck gradually registers his character's helpless disintegration.
With performances so variable in quality, "Angels in America" doesn't fly as high as might be hoped. Or perhaps the waning of middle-1990s society's pre-millennial jitters in the ugly face of our present-day realities has clipped the play's fearsome wings a bit.
"Angels in America" continues through Feb. 20 at the Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.