Swelter 2

Maybe it's just us, but lately parties seem like one vast theater of the ridiculous, riddled with bad taste, dysfunction, and assorted societal diseases. Accordingly, taking the path of high culture and hauling a shattered carcass down to the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, eager to bask in the opening-night whirl of Angels in America, the national touring company making its Florida debut. Tony Kushner's sweeping indictment of the great society -- the AIDS crisis, the stench of corruption, and the whole megillah -- a daunting prospect, given that seven hours of anything, even a direct linkup to a particularly talented orgasmatron machine, would seem to be beyond a refried brain, terminally short-circuited by dime-store debauchery.

That said, Angels proving to be an epic for the modern age, as American as a miniseries crossed with the yearning lyricism of Thomas Wolfe: big, ambitious, overlong and occasionally overblown, mythic, poetic, and funny in an edgy kind of way, a polemical firestorm of love and animus, coursing with the rapture of the apocalypse. At once hopeful and cynical, a massive effort that, if nothing else, demonstrates that this country can still put on one hell of a show. The first installment, Millennium Approaches, incorporating traces of Charles Dickens, magical realism, and sheer theatrical balls: Joseph McCarthy, Ethel Rosenberg, a pill-popping Mormon housewife, plain people, drag queens, celestial beings, long-dead ancestors, and the juice of Roy Cohn, all colliding amid the isolating narcissism of the Reagan era. Throughout, the vast din of the national circus, this land of delight and horror, an impossible grab bag of cultures united by malice, greed, mutual interests, and the grace of random kindness, the festering cease-fire that passes for a national sense of community.

The three acts of Millennium A "Bad News," "In Vitro," and "Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning" A gliding by like a floating opera of Grand Guignol archetypes, sexuality blurring steadily. Women playing men's parts in the manner of Shakespeare, and, as in real life, the toughest real men, in the traditional sense of maintaining grace under pressure, resolutely homosexual. Robert Sella's excellent performance as Prior Walter, the drag queen dying of AIDS, embodying the new strain of American manhood. The rants and machinations of Roy Cohn, played by Jonathan Hadary, glowing with venom, capturing many of the same endearing qualities that characterize our circle of acquaintance. Throughout, the pursuit of pleasure, justice, and the American way churning out dialogue of deep personal resonance: "By your second theme party, you realize it's all been done before.... Fuck the truth or it will fuck you.... You must respect the ecology of your delusions.... In the new century, we'll all be insane.... Do you think you're the only one who hates sex?... Life sucks shit!"

The sociocultural blitzkrieg ending with the other-worldly touch of a winged angel, an ethereal woman setting a life-imitates-art tone, materializing like a strange harbinger of hope and making our night complete: "I'm your biggest fan. And remember, the work you do is important." God bless you, mystery woman, although the relative value of our occupation falls somewhere between vivisections of the Zeitgeist and procurement. But then someone has to go to all these parties, the Angels celebrations -- benefiting the Friends of Gusman, a support group for the Miami landmark -- coming as a welcome stylistic shift. The right touch of pomp and circumstance set with a red carpet laid out across Flagler Street from the Gusman to the historic Alfred I. Dupont office building, the gold-level patrons assembling for midnight supper in an exquisite upstairs lobby, a harpist plinking away amid a sea of candle-lit tables. The very pretty, very tasteful gathering hosted by Capital Bank, gala co-chairmen William P. Murphy and Samuel W. Gentry greeting guests at the door: social activist Barbara Meyer, the plugged-in Michael Moore of Holland & Knight, the cast of Angels. A sublimely pleasant good time, resolving to stay uptown from now on: a halcyon enclave where no one's ever heard of a drink ticket, agendas are politely masked, and the residents keep their psychodramas to themselves.

Perestroika on Thursday night, round two of Angels in America, DIFFA/HOPE hosting an AIDS fundraiser afterward. Unlike the spiritual void of reality, where the evil sleep like babies and the virtuous are punished for every good deed, Roy Cohn dying of AIDS at the end as the saintly Prior Walter lingers on, theater having the luxury of moral instruction, production values, and cozy endings. Back into the fray of our little scrap of America, Lincoln Road, a perfectly pitched outpost of civilization. Naturally enough the strip set to undergo an architectural Armageddon, transformed into a hip version of CocoWalk. Heaven forbid one inch of Miami Beach earth remain unsullied.

In the meantime, all the boulevardiers are out, the sidewalks to hell paved with good intentions, deranged mise en scänes, and random encounters, past and present blurring together. Former Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, who set a certain standard of cheerful corruption, returning to the scene of his former triumph and degradation. A shirtless thug brandishing a nasty black dildo, like one of the Droogs in -- Clockwork Orange. The Van Dyke Cafe, club pros debating last weekend's news flash -- a major fire at Risk -- now shut down for repairs. Donatella Versace turning up at the New Concepts video store, picking through the stock of MGM musicals, soft-core gay porn playing on the monitor. Two teenyboppers-gone-to-middle-age earnestly discussing the lingering cuteness of David Cassidy, the Partridge Family icon-reformed pussy dog co-starring in Blood Brothers with Petula Clark, the songstress whose "Downtown" first lured us into the netherworld of bright lights, big city: If only life were one big bouncy musical number.

The Sterling Building, and it's the very immediate presence of Debra Winger, narrating From the Diary of Anne Frank at the New World Symphony, accompanied by Michael Tilson Thomas's orchestral composition. Taken aback, and given the noble nature of her Miami mission, choosing to ignore unseemly private questions. But really, what could Timothy Hutton and Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey possibly have in common, and more important, what are they really like? Trolling down the renown scale, Veronica Milchorena, former club bud and video chronicler of the golden days ("I can't believe you're still going out"), marveling at Jimmy Franzo's appearance as a Bad Boys villain -- no doubt, we'll have to witness that lunatic becoming a star in the next millennium. A pair of fave raves -- the Raleigh's Jauretsi and Channel 10's Su Keenan -- departing shortly for jobs in New York, at Paper magazine and Channel 4, respectively: Two less friendly faces, alas, to light up this twisted town. Winding down at the homosexual matrix of Gertrude's, refuge from the parched asphalt, talking of this and that. Several patrons loudly debating Glenn Albin's provocative article in Out magazine, the talk of the town lately, the piece detailing South Beach's denial of the brewing plague that is AIDS. Someone else rhapsodizing about Amnesia's let's-all-get-foamed-and-fucked party, a naked buck apparently taking center stage, mounted by seven different men. A wasted AIDS sufferer laughing about absurdities, the Gay Men's Chorus of New York immortalizing Martina Navratilova with Song of Martina, the continuing David Geffen-Keanu Reeves marriage rumors, heatedly denied in Parade and Time magazines. At the next table, a Canadian tourist missing the point of the perfect couple: "No Canadian man would ever marry an American man."

Outside, the streets a graphic carnival of desire and loathing played out on the hot bottom of the Earth. Pretty boys immersed in their Walkmans, Rollerblades, and pecs, chanting along to the nine inch nail's refrain "I want to fuck you like an animal." The homeless, an inescapable component of rising property values, trudging through errant lesbians: free-to-be-me gals conducting themselves like sailors on leave, making out on the median strips and denouncing the "strollers" who infect the ghetto of fun. Straights, in turn, yelling imprecations against faggots and dykes, the suburbanites looking leery and uncomfortable, like conventioneers on a bus tour of a red light district. An uneasy alliance of Americans, hopelessly divided, at war with themselves and each other, but still, it's a neighborhood of sorts, the last encouraging words of Angels in America coming to mind: "We will be citizens. The time has come. You are fabulous creatures, and I bless you: More life. The great work begins.

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Tom Austin