Coming hard on the heels of New Theatre's stylistically impressive but emotionally aloof Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches, the playhouse's humanizing production of Tony Kushner's challenging sequel, the three-hour Part II: Perestroika, unearths the soul in the play's characters. The stirring performances are enhanced by the complexity and resonance gained during the five-week engagement of Part I. No small feat, considering the plot's distractions of mannequins coming to life, an angel who incites orgasms, and a wild side trip to Heaven.
Set in New York City in the late Eighties, Perestroika picks up where Millennium Approaches left off. Prior (Matthew Wright) discovers that coping with AIDS is only one of his problems: His lover Louis (David Cirone) leaves him, and an angel (Bethany Bohall) bursts through the wall of his apartment to declare him a prophet. Meanwhile, Louis's new lover Joe (Wayne LeGette) has come out of the closet but still has hangups about his estranged wife Harper (Pamela Roza), his Mormon religion, his disapproving mother (Cynthia Caquelin), and his homophobic boss Roy Cohn (David Kwiat). Based on the real-life Cohn, an unscrupulous lawyer and right-wing heavy, the character tries to disguise both his homosexuality and the fact that he has full-blown AIDS. Even so, his attempted coverup cannot begin to hide his past, and as Part I concluded, Cohn fell under a gloating deathwatch by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Caquelin), whom he helped send to her execution after a controversial 1953 trial that found her and her husband Julius guilty of treason.
In Part II Kwiat portrays the myth as much as the man, offering up a gleefully malicious and profane Cohn who, if not historically accurate, is dramatically on the money. Hospitalized and visibly weakened, Cohn faces death the same way he's lived his life: He tries to cheat. He blackmails his way into new AZT laboratory trials, all the while racing to die before he's disbarred. Whether provoking his black nurse Belize (James Randolph) with racial slurs or baiting Rosenberg by calling her "Mrs. Reddy Kilowatt," Cohn searches for a human opponent to vanquish rather than taking on his incurable disease. His vicious bravado permeates the play.
At the same time Cohn rages against fate, Prior searches for wisdom. After the angel confides to him that in 1906 God deserted Heaven ("a city much like San Francisco"), Prior relinquishes any hope of divine intervention into his illness, then rushes to shirk his role as prophet while advising the angel to sue God for abandonment. Hoping to find answers in his human relationships, he teams up with his friend Belize to track down Louis's new lover. Face to face with Joe, Prior deadpans, "I have a hobby now -- I hound people." Prior's life-affirming humor precludes his physical deterioration from turning him into an object of pity. For example, he rallies from a relapse long enough to tell Joe's dowdy mother that no, despite his being a "ho-mo-sexual," he is not also a hairdresser. "But if I were," he points out, "it would be your lucky day." Wright's compelling and heartbreaking performance, which dominated Part I, has become even more affecting here.
As Belize, the ex-drag queen turned nurse, Randolph poignantly connects the Cohn/Prior plot lines, mixing charity and pragmatism when confronted with the daily reality of AIDS wards and dying friends who see angels (he tearfully worries that Prior's angelic visit signals an onslaught of dementia). Seconds after cattily dishing Cohn's hospital admission to Prior, Belize finds himself nonetheless advising the loathsome Cohn on the finer points of the AZT test trials.
It's a tribute to Wright, Kwiat, and Randolph, as well as to the solid ensemble cast, that they maintain our interest in the characters amid Perestroika's outlandish deviations from the central plot. At one point everyone's life is suspended while the angel describes Heaven to Prior in treacly metaphysical prose. It seems that angels have several genders and spend eternity copulating in Heaven to produce the substance used to glue the universe together; while this explains why the angel evokes an orgasm in everyone she touches, it fails to tell us what this has to do with anything else in the six-hourlong work as a whole. Similarly, the mannequin display at the Mormon visitors center in Manhattan springs to life in a funny digression that allows Harper and Prior to bond owing to their respective abandonments, although it adds nothing new to their situations. And in the script's most overreaching tangent, Prior visits Heaven to hear the angels plead for humans to stop their quest for "progress," a scene that serves only to set up the farcical coda of Cohn's afterlife.
Incredibly, the script features even more irrelevancies, but codirectors Rafael de Acha and Deborah Mello's judicious cutting prevents Kushner's obtuse lyricism from rendering the action too remote. Indeed, de Acha and Mello's determination to corral Kushner's flights of fancy and to underscore the journeys of his characters enhances what is generally considered the weaker half of Angels in America. Whereas both plays won Tony Awards (1993 and 1994), the Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics' Circle Award that had gone to Millennium Approaches in 1993 went to Edward Albee's Three Tall Women a year later. Representative of the critical consensus, Robert Brustein wrote in the New Republic that given Perestroika's sprawling conclusion, Angels's length "is less a sign of richness than of the author's incapacity to edit out repetitions or focus on an integrated action."
New Theatre's Perestroika turns Kushner's overt political agenda for gay empowerment from a battle cry into the respectful accommodation the title suggests; the transformation is accomplished by downplaying the polemics and spotlighting reconciliations between the characters. In one instance Joe's mother temporarily puts aside the moral beliefs that prevent her from openly accepting her son's sexual orientation so she can keep a bedside vigil by the unconscious Prior. Likewise, the human capacity for forgiveness overcomes long-held prejudices, as bleeding-heart liberal Louis, maligned Belize, and victimized Rosenberg offer a prayer for Cohn. Still, no directorial fine-tuning can soften Kushner's damnation of Joe: Rejected by his wife after a failed reunion and spurned by Louis for his Republican activities, he becomes a pariah for not only refusing to embrace his gay lifestyle but also for having the wrong political viewpoint.
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And politics saturates Perestroika from opening to close. Set in Russia, the prologue features an old Bolshevik decrying the fall of communism while insisting that the world needs the Marxist dialectic struggle to propel it toward the future. Likewise, in the work that follows, Kushner suggests that the government's malign neglect of the AIDS crisis ignored not only the mounting death toll but also the contributions made by gays to society. This theme is most evident as Prior defends human progress to the angels, then it concludes in the epilogue when he addresses a final prophecy to the audience, announcing that gays are here to stay and will struggle on.
Prior demands a commitment, and so does Kushner. Three hours is a lot to ask of an audience. But the playwright really asks us only to come to the theater. Sure, art houses show films with haunting imagery, "must-see TV" gives us well-crafted comedy, and operas deliver deathbed tragedy, but Kushner supplies all of these in an exhilarating experience that you simply cannot get any other way. And with New Theatre's incisive and courageous production, you can't get it much better.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part II -- Perestroika.
Written by Tony Kushner; directed by Rafael de Acha and Deborah Mello; with Bethany Bohall, Cynthia Caquelin, David Cirone, David Kwiat, Wayne LeGette, James Randolph, Pamela Roza, and Matthew Wright. Through September 28. For more information call 443-5909 or see "Calendar Listings.