Divine Design: Edward Pierce, on bringing ‘Angels’ to America

L to R: James McArdle, Susan Brown, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Andrew Garfield, with Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace angel bathed in neon. | Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Intense, exhilarating, somber, hellish, heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting — and laugh-out-loud funny throughout its two-part, nearly eight-hour running time — the acclaimed London production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning 1993 play “Angels in America” has arrived in its titular country with the dynamic ensemble largely intact (including Andrew Garfield as AIDS patient and unlikely prophet Prior Walter, Denise Gough as pill-popping Mormon wife and vision quester Harper Pitt, and Nathan Lane as conservative kingmaker and closeted “liver cancer” sufferer Roy Cohn).

Although the actors dashed across the pond with nary a ripple, transferring the visual elements of this surreal meditation on Reagan-era evolution and inertia from the well-appointed Lyttelton Theatre to its comparatively cozy New York City venue proved a far greater challenge. Edward Pierce answered the call to adapt what he described as a “massive physical production,” and, having done so, will be among the roll call on June 10, when the Tony Award nominees for Best Scenic Design are read.

Pierce and his Midtown-based team spent “the better part of nine months” realizing the project — work that began in June 2017 when, he recalled, “they were starting to explore moving to Broadway, so I was able to go to London while the show was still in production” to see what designer Ian MacNeil had done. The two had already covered similar ground, when Pierce took MacNeil’s work for the original West End run of “Billy Elliot” to other stages.

With the “Angels” gig secured, Pierce and his team got down to the nuts and bolts process of generating drawings and models to, he said, “figure out how the show was going to embrace a smaller venue. We worked with the lighting designer, the choreographer [and others], to lay all the ideas down on the table; what they hoped to achieve in transferring to Broadway… We spent weeks, literally moving little pieces of furniture around on various drawings, trying to figure out every little nook and cranny where you could put the stuff.”

Throughout the course of the play, noted Pierce, “We strip all of that away [the walls, the furniture], and then, as the real world changes, the characters [their lives and reality] dissolve. It shows itself in the set design… In your last moments of ‘Perestroika,’ the stage is bare, all the way to the brick wall, all the way into the wings — and the audience, for a moment, I believe, thinks, ‘Did I actually see what I saw over these last two plays? Because there’s nothing here.’ ”

Walls and worlds dissolve, often defined only by neon, in “Perestroika,” the play’s second installment. L to R: Beth Malone (supported by Angel Shadows) and Andrew Garfield. | Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Getting to the point of the final scene’s essentially bare stage, populated by only four cast members and an angel statue, wasn’t easy. The National Theatre’s Lyttelton (one of the sprawling facility’s three spaces) “has a lot of technology built into it,” explained Pierce. “The whole stage is able to be rigged through hydraulics, and there’s plenty of room to take big ideas and push them into the wings… The challenge for us in this very small Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway was, where to put it all,” he said, referencing the multitude of moving parts — far more than the average show, given how its two stand-alone installments (“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika) dreamily traverse offices, hospital rooms, apartments, airplanes, heavenly realms, Central Park, Salt Lake City, a street in the Bronx, and the diorama room of Manhattan’s Mormon Visitor Center.

The physical settings are minimal, with a desk or bed serving as a signature piece that suggests rather than imposes (with the half-finished look of the interiors in “Millennium,” you’d be hard-pressed to glean anyone’s personality or predilection from a scan of their home furnishings). Environments lack definition, with neon lines (sometimes white, sometimes spectacularly colorful) serving as the cut-off point of a particular space. Multiple sets often share the stage, perpetually, as Pierce described it, “appearing, moving, disassembling, and dissolving” through the effort of unseen hands, or a troupe of “Angel Shadows” who also give height, flight, and wing to the show’s titular character.

“Transition is what interests me the most about design for the theater, how you move and tell a story and come up with a visual through line,” Pierce said (such exchanges of location happen dozens of times over the course of each play). “Often,” he noted of the planning process, “we figure out how the show will transition before we actually figure out what it will look like… How do you get from one [scene] to the next? Do you keep an audience, or do you lose them?”

Most of what the audience will see at the Neil Simon Theatre is, physically, new, although Pierce said “the walls that represented various locations on those turntables in ‘Millennium,’ we brought directly from the London production… there are little elements of neon outlining the edges.”

That use of neon was a distinct part of the London production, but Pierce said he augmented and expanded the motif, in ways that invoke its “very 1980s” omnipresence (those who know “Miami Vice” or remember Spencer Gifts might well connect those dots during ‘Perestroika’). Neon, invoking the period or otherwise, is, Pierce said, “certainly not anywhere in the script — and Tony Kushner’s script is rife with detail and expression about what he’d like to see. The flaming Bible coming out of the ground, that’s something that Tony has written… But the visuals [of what the world looks like], that’s not scripted. So the introduction of the neon is a collaboration between both the scenic and the lighting design… When you have eight hours of presentation, it’s important, through lighting, as the camera would do in film or television, to direct the audience — where to pay attention and what to concentrate on. And a little bit of neon is just a slight suggestion, and I think it’s a little theatrical, which is important for this work because there’s a certain theatricality to the storytelling.”

L to R: Denise Gough and Lee Pace in an apartment whose design typifies the minimalist approach of “Millennium Approaches.” | Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Asked about upcoming projects, Pierce said, “I have a lovely play opening at the Cherry Lane Theatre [Charles Mee’s “First Love,” June 14-July 8]…and we are adapting the original Hal Prince production of “Phantom of the Opera” into a new world touring production that looks to break new ground, in touring internationally. We are about to go into the workshop, to get it constructed, and we’ll open in Manila [Philippines] in February of 2019.”

As for “Angels,” which concludes its Broadway run next month, Pierce will find himself in the audience this Sunday night as a Tony nominee for that show. Regarding how he will cast his ballot, Pierce said with a laugh, “You can vote for yourself,” also noting that he was, at the time of our interview, almost done seeing all of the shows required in order to vote.

Regarding the extent to which his profession impacts the viewing experience, Pierce said, “It’s inevitable at this point, when I’m sitting in a Broadway theater, that my mind starts to think about the individual craft. However, I have to say, the most amazing moment for me, in the theater, is when I actually start to get taken on the ride and I just enjoy what I am experiencing.” It’s in such moments, noted Pierce, “you realize they were very successful. Because if they can take you away from thinking about the mechanics, then they’ve really done their job.”

“Angels in America” closes on July 15. For tickets and info, visit angelsbroadway.com. The Tony Awards (tonyawards.com) are broadcast on Sun., June 10, 8pm on CBS. For artist info, visit edwardpierce.com.

A bench and trash can suggest Central Park. L to R: James McArdle, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” | Photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

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