Angels in America has been hailed as vast, miraculous, and sweeping, the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time. Whether such superlatives are justified or not remains to be determined, but one thing is certain -- the two-part drama subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" has been the most heralded theatrical event in recent years.
"I began Angels as a conversation, real and imaginary, between Oskar [Eustis] and myself," writes Tony Kushner in the introduction to his drama's published script. As an outgrowth of that conversation, Eustis, artistic director of San Francisco's Eureka Theater, commissioned Kushner to create the work in 1987. Kushner began writing with only two characters in mind: lawyer Roy Cohn and a Mormon. Over the next five years, through countless workshop productions and increasing excitement on the part of audiences, Angels burgeoned into a multicharacter, two-part epic that grapples with the major issues of our confusing age. In part one, "Millennium Approaches," and part two, "Perestroika," Kushner adroitly synthesizes sexuality, AIDS, politics, religion, drugs, history, and fantasy into an inspired chronicle, and he does so by telling a riveting story about complex people.
The play intertwines the fortunes and misfortunes of several characters: Cohn, an in-the-closet Republican power broker with AIDS (based on the attorney who assisted Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s); the fictional Prior Walter, also dying of AIDS, who finds himself an unwitting prophet of a new age at the end of "Millennium"; Louis Ironson, Prior's lover, who splits when he learns Prior has contracted the disease; Joe and Harper Pitt, a couple caught in a disintegrating marriage; Belize, a former drag queen and now a nurse who treats both his friends Prior and Cohn; Hannah Pitt, Joe's mother; the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets, the real-life Rosenberg and her husband, Julius, were executed for treason in 1953 A Cohn helped to prosecute them); and the Angel of America. The action jumps from reality to dream to vision, and from New York City to Salt Lake City to Moscow to Heaven, with characters from the Thirteenth and Seventeenth centuries visiting the present, in this case the late Eighties.
What seem at first glance to be disparate elements -- Reaganomics, gay culture, Valium addiction, racism, Mormons, Judaism, the settling of America, Bolshevism, and angels -- coalesce into a grand theme. Although its main characters have AIDS, and homosexuality figures intimately in the script, Angels in America comes across as much more than an AIDS play. Kushner calls for a restructuring of society out of the rubble of dying orders. As Reaganomics and communism crumble, his vision insists they be replaced with a commitment to community and to caring for the poor, neglected, sick, and dying. Ambitious, yes. Political diatribe, no. Kushner seamlessly weaves his politics into the daily lives of his characters.
The work has generated intense media scrutiny from the time a workshop production of "Millennium Approaches" was originally presented at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1990, followed one year later by its world premiere in San Francisco. From there the play wended its way to London's West End and then back to Los Angeles, where it enjoyed the first full production of both parts. Along the way, rapid-fire reports whetted the appetites of eager New Yorkers. In keeping with the drama's epic proportions, the New York press trumpeted its impending arrival, including profiles on Kushner and updates on the under-pressure process by which he continued to refine "Perestroika." Then the papers documented the controversy that ensued when the opening shifted from off-Broadway to Broadway. George C. Wolfe secured the coveted role of director, and the play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama before its New York opening. Then it copped a Tony Award two years in a row, one for each part. After all the hubbub, what originally had seemed a fresh and daring drama that blended magical realism with socialist politics while recalling Aristophanes, Bertolt Brecht, and Caryl Churchill was reduced in my mind to buzz-bin status. I figured nothing that hyped could be that good.
Determined to see for myself, I arrived at the Walter Kerr Theater in Manhattan last fall for a matinee performance of "Millennium Approaches" in a show-me mood. Amazingly the hype had not done the play justice -- it was sexier, funnier, wiser, sharper, angrier, thematically broader, and more theatrical than I'd been led to believe. Now that the national touring company of Angels is coming to the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, I eagerly await seeing "Perestroika."
Michael Mayer directs the touring production, which arrives from New England on April 18, with the two parts playing in repertory through April 23. The show comes here by way of a calculated risk. When Pace Theatrical Group of Florida decided not to include the seven-hour epic in its season's lineup of touring Broadway shows, Nancy Skinner, the Gusman's managing director, says she "saw an opportunity to get to know the promoters and producers of the Angels tour and make a run for it. We were able, as a relatively small presenter, to convince the producers in New York that we could make it work." The historic theater has "never done a blockbuster Broadway production before," acknowledges Skinner, and pulling off this one, she admits, will be "a technical feat." A narrow loading area and limited wing space promises to challenge both the Gusman's and Angels' crews. Everything currently stored under the theater's stage and in its wings will be shipped off-site for the duration of the six-day run to accommodate the technological hardware that allows an angel to crash through a ceiling and fly through the air.
Speaking over the phone from New Haven, Connecticut, Jonathan Hadary, who plays Roy Cohn in the touring production, says he looks forward to performing at the Gusman Center because the "older theaters were built for human voices." When asked how he handled depicting the immoral center of a moral play, Hadary responds, "Calling Cohn the bad guy doesn't quite encompass who he is. Putting him in [the play] was such a remarkable act." Indeed, in one accomplished stroke, Kushner created a character who embodies the hypocrisy the work attempts to expose. A vicious bigot who baited alleged communists in the 1950s, Cohn revels in 1980s greed. But to maintain his all-important illusion of power, he denies his homosexuality up until the moment of his death from AIDS.
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Each team of designers, directors, and actors who tackle the daunting epic transform it. Reportedly, Mayer stages an uncluttered, clearly focused version in which the actors carry scenery on- and off-stage. Hadary confirms that the tour is "not a duplication of Broadway," where, he notes, some of Kushner's stage directions were "smoothed out.... This is the same play but a different production, with some of the scenes cut for Broadway restored. The show is 'actor-driven,' as Kushner's stage directions intend. We move furniture. We play with the conventional notion of what's real on stage. We let the audience enjoy using their imagination."
A conversation set Tony Kushner's imagination on fire eight years ago. The result: a fevered, resplendent, theatrical collage that attempts to make sense out of the past fifteen splintered years. The greatest play of our time? See it and decide for yourself.
Another limited run prevents me from reviewing a play I nonetheless plan to see, Jelly's Last Jam. Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and director of the Broadway version of Angels in America, it opens at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, running from April 4 to April 16. Wolfe uses the biography of Jelly Roll Morton, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz who denied his black roots by claiming he was pure Creole, to explore larger issues of African-American identity and culture. In a take on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, "Chimney Man" visits Morton on the eve of his death and escorts the jazz great on an unsparing tour of his life, from his professional triumphs through his less-than-exemplary personal life.
Combining New Orleans jazz, tap dancing, and Broadway choreography, Jelly's Last Jam boasts an outstanding cast, including Maurice Hines, Savion Glover (who originated the role of young Jelly on Broadway), and Freda Payne, best known for her 1970 megahit "Band of Gold." Evening performances run Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00, with matinees Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2:00. Call 462-0222 for information.