A year has passed since Steve Hendrickson's performance as Roy M. Cohn in the Pillsbury House production of Angels in America; Part One: Millennium Approaches scorched its way into my memory. Even now, scanning Cohn's first lines from Tony Kushner's monumental two-part play ("I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers."), I hear them exactly as Hendrickson spoke them. He has a bank of telephones before him, his arms waving over them as they emit a cacophony of electronic shrieks. Hendrickson's sunken eyes blaze with joy and he expels his words in a raspy East Coast-accented ejaculation. (Disclosure: Last year I scripted a brief one-act for the Pillsbury House Theatre's Chicago Avenue Project, a volunteer effort that pairs children from South Minneapolis with professional actors to perform short plays. Hendrickson narrated my piece.)
Now the Pillsbury House Theatre has decided to return to Kushner and mount part two of Angels, titled Perestroika, and Hendrickson is back playing Cohn. As written by Kushner, Cohn is a tour-de-force character: He contracts AIDS in part one and dies of it in part two, but is never ennobled by the experience, which is usually the way things happen in plays that deal with disease (see the forthcoming production of Wit at the Fitzgerald Theatre for an example). Instead, Kushner uses the illness to up the ante in Cohn's life. Where once he brokered power for the sadistic pleasure of it, now he does so out of pure desperation, threatening his doctor to get his diagnosis changed to liver cancer, bullying his male nurse, and pulling strings to gain access to AZT.
At the same time, Cohn's illness has conjured up the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn helped send to the electric chair. But rather than show any remorse, Cohn simply uses this meeting as one last opportunity to harangue the dead woman. Part two follows Cohn's deterioration, with much of the play showing him writhing in his hospital bed. Hendrickson's performance last year, depicting a character that Kushner clearly despises, was thrilling and filled with a furious vitality.
Now, the actor is charged with playing a Cohn who is sapped of strength, but still raging. And with his illness, his fury grows. Cohn has been grooming a young assistant, a Mormon named Joseph Porter Pitt, played by Brian Goranson (also back from last year's production), who has a subdued, soft-spoken demeanor that is a perfect counterpoint to Hendrickson's flamboyant displays of vile passion. Upon learning that Pitt has left his wife for a male lover, Cohn springs from his deathbed, plucking his IV from his arm and then seizing Pitt to throttle him. The force of Cohn's fury is such that, deathly ill, he remains the most dangerous man in the room. We doubt that even death can stop him--and, in a final, wicked joke from Kushner that places a still-bullying Cohn in the afterworld, it doesn't.
Along with Hendrickson and Goranson, most of last year's cast has returned: Blayn Lemke, who offers both a beatific smile and a series of elaborate, delicate emotional breakdowns as Prior Walter, a patient with AIDS who is suffering terrifying visions of angels; Cathleen Fuller, who is abrupt and sharp-tongued in a variety of roles; Paul de Cordova, playing a Jewish lefty as though there were nothing sexier; and Jamila Anderson as a comically deadpan angel. Only two from last year's cast have been replaced, and in both instances the replacements improve the show. Carolyn Pool takes over from Melissa Lewis as Harper Pitt, the Valium-addicted and constantly hallucinating wife of Joseph Pitt whose life is shattered upon learning of her husband's homosexuality. Harper's hallucinations are bizarre, sending her at one point to Antarctica (a subtle nod on the part of Kushner to Communist playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky's Mystery Bouffe, which likewise visits heaven, hell, and the North Pole; Kushner's script is not simply pink in sexual preference, but also in politics). These hallucinations are hard to play, and Lewis muddled through them acting flat and bewildered. Pool appears more off-balance and dazed, as though someone had struck her on the forehead with a hammer. It's not the meatiest portrayal, but it is often fun to watch.
The other substitution is Djola Branner for Payton J. Woodson in the role of Belize, a sardonic male nurse. This role gains in importance in Perestroika: A minor character in part one, Belize interacts with the dying Cohn throughout much of part two. Woodson's performance was shallow: There was much twittering and bitching, but little else. Branner offers greater depth: His Belize commands the stage, able to freeze a doctor in his tracks with a sharp comment, and able to hold his own against Cohn, even as the bastard goes insane.
Perestroika is a more skittish script than Millennium Approaches: Its plot consists, with the exception of the bedridden Cohn, of all of its characters wandering around New York with absolutely no sense of direction. That the story should barrel along with such momentum represents a minor theatrical miracle. (Interestingly, the first reading of Perestroika in San Francisco in 1991 was directed by David Esbjornson, who has directed the similarly challenging Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? currently playing at the Guthrie). At the same time, Kushner's politics and religious interjections get looser and weirder in this episode. His cosmology--filled with councils of angels and liberal-leaning mysticism--is quite simply ridiculous.
This is also a more hopeful play than the first one, and its main theme is forgiveness, particularly asking how it is possible to forgive the unforgivable. As directed by Noël Raymond, this is sometimes quite moving. Kushner's script, after all, shows us the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg saying the Kaddish over the dead body of Roy Cohn, the man who caused her horrific death, and the staging is beautiful and somber. If this is not what forgiveness looks like, then what does it look like?