Winged Victory

For decades, when theater folk used the word angels, they were referring to those rare investors who could miraculously save productions with their financial backing, but whose good will proved to be as difficult to attain as divine providence. In 1993, Angels with a capital a became the theatrical buzzword, but this time everyone was talking about Tony Kushner's epic two-part Angels in America, which was steamrolling onto Broadway with that year's Pulitzer Prize in tow. As it turns out, the two plays referred to by the shortened form Angels are every bit as enriching yet as frustratingly hard to find around these parts as those stagestruck moneybags.

From the start, the physical and financial demands of mounting Kushner's sprawling six-hour work (in which a cast of eight plays 23 characters) worried potential producers almost as much as the plays' controversial elements, which have, in later productions, sparked protests in some cities. Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner's sweeping depiction of AIDS and the politics surrounding it serves up a free-association test for the nation's moral consciousness. The plays' liberal gay rights agenda undeniably suggests a parallel between the renewed national clout of the religious right and the anticommunist persecutions of the mid-Fifties; gays, Mormons, a heavenly messenger, and real-life twentieth-century lighting rods Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn all interact in Angels's dreamlike quick-cut scenes. Angry picketers have denounced its profanity, homosexual encounters, and occasional nudity.

Originally commissioned by San Francisco's Eureka Theatre for a 1989 opening, Angels in America was developed in its two separate parts, with Part I: Millennium Approaches first presented in a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before it received a fully staged production at the Eureka in 1990. The Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Part I at London's National Theatre followed in early 1992, earning the critical raves needed to pave the way for a staging of Part I and Part II: Perestroika at the Mark Taper later that year. Emboldened by bankable out-of-town reviews and the Pulitzer for Part I, producers mounted both plays on Broadway for a successful run starting in 1993.

Although Angels in America went on to win consecutive Tony Awards for Best Play -- Part I in 1993, Part II in 1994 -- South Florida's regional theaters and the local presenter of the Broadway touring companies all declined to add Kushner's work to their schedules; the plays' only South Florida appearance occurred in 1995 when Miami's financially strapped Gusman Center for the Performing Arts presented a six-day engagement of the national tour, in what turned out to be a profitable high-risk gamble. Now two of the most critically acclaimed plays of the decade finally receive their first production by a local company. Coral Gables's intimate New Theatre is staging both parts as its ambitious season opener, with Millennium Approaches continuing through August 17, followed by Perestroika beginning August 21. Produced on Broadway with mammoth sets, this ambitious saga seems a tight fit for New Theatre's 63-seat space, yet the play retains its majestic scope and continues to be a marvelously theatrical, intellectually stimulating, and captivating work, effortlessly making the transition to the small stage.

Set primarily in Manhattan in 1985 (the year that Rock Hudson's AIDS-related death drew attention to the disease first identified four years earlier), Millennium Approaches immediately puts a human face on the epidemic in its beginning when desperately frightened Prior (Matthew Wright) confesses his HIV-positive status to a stunned Luis (David Cirone), his lover of four and a half years. Guilt-ridden but increasingly unable to face the horrors of his partner's illness, Luis abandons Prior. Devastated and alone, Prior fears his disease has progressed to dementia when he begins to receive sickbed visits from dead ancestors and hears disembodied messages announcing the impending arrival of an otherworldly herald (Bethany Bohall).

While legal clerk Luis cruises Central Park, a lawyer in his firm, Joe (Wayne LeGette), struggles to stay in the closet for the sake of both his religious faith and his marriage. A Mormon who was raised to believe homosexuality is a sin, Joe entered into a doomed marriage with Harper (Pamela Roza). His wife, another Mormon having difficulties with the church's teachings, gobbles Valium to escape her crumbling marriage. Tired of deflecting Harper's probing questions and Luis's disquieting advances, Joe seeks solace from his mentor, the nefarious power broker Roy Cohn (David Kwiat); he's unaware of Cohn's underlying motives for pushing him to take an influential job in Washington, D.C. Certainly Cohn knows politics, having built a career hunting reds with Sen. Joe McCarthy in the Fifties, and later represented powerful clients (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and J. Edgar Hoover). He won acquittals in three trials of his own for obstruction of justice, bribery, blackmail, and corruption. Cohn also knows about being a self-loathing closeted gay (his panel on the AIDS quilt reads "Roy Cohn -- Coward/ Bully/Victim"). In Kushner's view of history, Cohn responds to the threat of being outed by his disease with characteristic malice -- he threatens his doctor with a libel suit if he doesn't go along with a diagnosis of cancer. When the doctor insists that gay sex caused Cohn to contract AIDS, the infuriated lawyer insists, "Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man ... who fucks around with guys."

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