KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 5, 1999
It’s galvanizing. Apocalyptic. Monumental. The most acclaimed and exalted play of several decades, a drama that defines our generation, our country, and the tail-end of our century. “Angels in America” is a big, big piece about Big Ideas, and it’s a mammoth undertaking for a tiny company.
But the plucky little Diversionary Theatre has attempted the almost-impossible; they’re not only presenting the first local production of Part I, “Millennium Approaches,” but they’re inaugurating the new century with Part II, “Perestroika.”
With its 29 characters requiring eight protean actors, its quicksilver set-changes and angel falling through the roof, part one of Tony Kushner’s 1991 masterpiece is no meager endeavor. Diversionary and its artistic director, Wayne Tibbetts, must be loudly applauded for its initiative and spunk. But just because they got it, doesn’t mean they got it right. They are so obviously earnest, even reverential, about this Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, that it loses a good deal of its provocative, dramatic, poetic and most of all, its comic power.
The play is set in 1980s New York, but no one in the cast sounds like they’ve been east of El Cajon. The story parallels the dissolution of two relationships: a straight and strait-laced Mormon couple and a pair of highly literate gay men, one of whom is dying of AIDS. One of the highlights of the structure is the extreme contrasts in the characters. But this Louis and Prior seem to be cut from exactly the same cloth, even though one is supposed to be a quintessentially neurotic, angst-and guilt-ridden New York Jew, and the other’s a rather fey and funny blueblood. That’s not to say that James McCullock and Matthew Caffoni aren’t good; they are. They’re just not playing the characters Kushner wrote.
Neither is Tony Hamm as Belize, who has transformed the still-flamboyant former drag queen into a drudge. As the illusory and seductive Mr. Lies, Hamm is also, dare I say it, ham-fisted. Michael Severance is playing the tortured, confused and closeted Joe Pitt as a Stepford robot, though he’s pretty funny as the ghost of Prior’s 13th century ancestor, written as Yorkshire, played here as a Scot. Lisa Galer is unbelievable in almost all her very diverse roles — as rabbi, Southern Reaganite, and a rather SoCal version of Ethel Rosenberg. But she fits the quirky Mormon mother, Hannah Pitt, to a T. Frank DiPalermo is a homeless Bronxite who really sounds authentic, but his Angel, who should make a shocking, startling, breath-holding, end-of-show appearance, swings in like Tarzan and delivers his soul-stirring invocation like a whiny automaton.
Okay, those are my complaints, and they are not insignificant. I could, of course, add the creaky, low-tech set-changes, which are laughable at times. In his playwright’s notes, Kushner says “it’s OK if the wires show…but the magic should be…thoroughly amazing.” It isn’t, though the first appearance of Mr. Lies on a fog-shrouded boat off the balcony, is kinda wonderful.
The real focus in this production is drawn to two transcendent performances. First there is Anna Rosemore, as the Valium-addicted, agoraphobic Harper, the crazed sage who has hallucinations, but whose vision is the most crystalline in the play. Rosemore is luminous, terrified, wide-eyed and riveting.
And Richard Stevens is magnificent as the monstrous Roy Cohn, the ruthless, soulless power-monger who is the fulcrum of the piece, emblematic of the hypocrisy of Reagan-era America: an amoral attorney and homosexual homophobe.
This play is just too big to be writ small. Its scope is so broad and deep, that to try to confine it physically is to confine it dramatically and philosophically. But bravo to Diversionary for an imaginative and very valiant effort. And all carping aside, if you’ve never seen “Angels in America,” even in a flawed production that doesn’t, as it should, blow your mind and touch your heart, you should go, experience it, get a bittersweet taste of the end-of the century. After all, as the title warns, Millennium Approaches.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.