Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
Click Here for More Articles on ANGELS IN AMERICA

BWW Interview: Susan Brown and Her Bevy of Characters in ANGELS IN AMERICA


Angels in America

Susan Brown doesn't normally chant in Hebrew, but now she can recite the Mourner's Kaddish without a hiccup. And that's a good thing, because one of the characters Brown plays in Tony Kushner's Tony award-winning Angels in America is Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz.

Brown plays four other characters in this epic production starring Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Andrew Garfield (Prior Walter). The play, which also won a Pulitzer Prize, is not just about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, it also puts laser focus on McCarthyism, climate change, Reaganism, religion and immigration. It could have been written about today's political mood.

"There is a feeling that the show has come home," Brown said. ANGELS spent months in London before flying to Broadway.

"Most of the cast is intact," she said. There is a new Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) and new movers of the angel (Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Matty Oaks, Genesis Oliver, Jane Pfitsch, Lee Aaron Rosen, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova and Lucy York).

Brown, who used a Hebrew tutor and listened to tapes religiously, has found it relatively easy maintaining a balance between the three men and two women she portrays.

Angels in America"This is my third time working with Marianne"-director Marianne Elliot - "and I'm having a brilliant time. She knows I'm a chameleon as an actor. It's a unique challenge to portray three men and two women characters."

The rabbi role is always paired with the role of Hannah Pitt in the production. Brown asked Kushner why that is. "He looked at me with a wry expression and said I didn't need to ask the questions, just enjoy it," Brown recalled.

The play, a watershed work for the ages, resonates palpably with New York audiences. "London audiences are marvelous and of course they loved it a lot, but there are so many things that mean more to American audiences," Brown said. "More people here are familiar with Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg. They're part of your history. The audiences are being tremendously appreciative. It's fun," she said.

"I've felt quite moved playing the rabbi. It struck me on the very first night. New York is a city of immigrants, which is what the rabbi is talking about.

"When I mention Grand Concourse or Flatbush, you can tell they really understand," Brown said. "You hear waves of recognition all throughout the play."

As the rabbi, Brown evokes a near ethereal feeling, a lightness. When portraying both Rosenberg and Mrs. Pitt, a devout Mormon, Brown has heft for each woman. The characters walk with an assured sturdiness.

The play resonates because it's not just about AIDS and its devastation. "I think it's relevant," Brown added. "In the '80s the AIDS diagnosis loomed so large in everybody's consciousness, and today is different.

"It's a state-of-the-nation play and always was. It doesn't feel dated at all; it puts that period of time more In Focus. There's still so much to say beyond Reagan. We all know what we're dealing with now," she said. "I think it will live on as the politics are so brilliant, even 25 years later. It could go on for decades."

Angels in America

The production has a principle cast of eight, but with so many doubling up, it seems as though there were 20 people weaving across the stage at any given time.

"My characters are well spaced out in the first part," Brown said. "I never had a problem keeping the characters separate. But as the production moves on, some of the changes are ridiculous," Brown said with a laugh.

"There's so much drama going on backstage with wig and makeup people and costumes. The wig department is so brilliant, they almost make it easy to change roles. Unfortunately, I have to wear wigs even for Mrs. Pitt," Brown said.

Portraying Hannah Pitt is her biggest challenge. "She's a complex woman. She's a practicing Mormon and she has difficulty dealing with Prior's homosexuality. She is able to move forward and has amazing character development. Ethel has one dimension-she wants to see Roy Cohn dead," Brown added.

Angels in America

Angels in America

Since moving to New York, Brown hasn't had much free time to explore the city. "It's a seven-minute walk to Central Park from my apartment and it's wonderful. I love going to Whole Foods and buying things to cook at home," she said. "That's how I relax."

She looks forward to going upstate with her husband for a respite when she has a break. Blackout blinds have helped with the adjustment. "I don't mind the noise, but the sunlight drove me crazy," she said.

Brown always knew she would be an actor. "It was always in me," she recalled. "I was a difficult child and a difficult teenager and gave my parents a lot to deal with. When I discovered I had a facility for being other people doing school plays, it fell into place," Brown said. "I'm very lucky because not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love. Most people struggle to find something you have a passion for.

"I had a wonderful English teacher who realized this was the thing that was going to calm me down and be good for me. From the age of 15 on, I absolutely knew I would do this."

Fans of GAME OF THRONES might recognize Brown as Septa Mordane in the television mega-hit. "I was in the first period, and I enjoyed it enormously. It deserved to do well because of the faith and love for it. We filmed on Malta and in Belfast; it was great," Brown said. "I was terribly sad when my head ended up on a stake."

Brown has advice for theater-goers who want to see ANGELS but are daunted by the seven-hour-plus production.

"Open your heart to it," Brown suggested. "Although it's long, you won't get bored or fidgety. And each performance has two intervals."

Angels in America is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street.

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Related Articles

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes & More

From This Author Naomi Serviss