“ANGELS IN AMERICA Parts I & II” at the Spreckels Theatre
KPBS AIRDATE: October 11, 1995
This isn’t just a theatrical event — it’s a dramatic necessity. Call it ‘the play of the millennium.’ Anyone who considers himself a theater buff, anyone who cares about the state of the arts, politics, religion, or philosophy in this country is making a huge mistake not to see the most important, most acclaimed play of the last quarter-century.
“Angels in America ” is not just topical, it’s timeless. It takes place in mid-80s, Reagan-era New York , but it could have been written yesterday. It’s so damned big, that even with two parts, and a total of 7 1/2 hours, it leaves you breathless. The landscape it covers is immense. There is an enormous amount to absorb, to ponder and to recall. It’s almost impossible to enumerate its themes.
On some very superficial level, it’s about AIDS and gays in America , but it also broadly sweeps across a vast field of politics and religion; sex and love; commitment and community; Mormons and Jews, angels and God; heaven, hell and the ozone layer. Everyone is made to confront his demons. Conservative Republicans bed down with liberal Democrats. Whites face off against blacks. Heterosexuals unwittingly marry homosexuals.
It’s political but not polemical, as playwright Tony Kushner put it. Tragic at times, but also hilariously funny. In fact, that’s one of Kushner’s great theatrical devices. He hoists you to an amazing dramatic height, and then he blithely cuts the string, and lets you freefall in hysterics, dragging you along, moment to moment, from gut-wrench to belly-laugh.
It’s not for nothing that these two play parts have garnered every theater prize imaginable, including 7 Tony Awards and the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
This is an epic, to be sure, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” It follows the curiously intertwined lives of five primary characters, though the eight actors play about 20 different roles in all. Our focus is mainly on Prior Walter, a 30-year old gay man, withering from AIDS, but chosen to be a prophet by an angel who falls through his ceiling; and his lover Louis, an angst-ridden, neurotic, hyper-intellectual Jewish liberal, who abandons Prior in his time of need. And then there’s the nice Mormon couple Joe and Harper Pitt, he confused in his sexual identity, she, incredibly lucid, even when she’s escaping into Valium hallucinations.
And over these two couples hovers the dark shadow of Roy Cohn, monstrous legal power-monger, former right-hand man to Joseph McCarthy, anti-Semitic Jew and gay homophobe, the epitome of everything dark and ugly, money-grubbing and amoral about 80s America.
Kushner is brilliant in weaving together these lives. And he is at his most brilliant in Part I, “Millennium Approaches.” These characters are so well drawn, so full of pathos and profundity, that you can’t wait to meet up with them in Part II, “Perestroika.” Here, the drama sags in Segments 1 and 3, but soars in segment 2. At the end, we feel a little let down that it’s over, that things aren’t really resolved — but are they ever, in life? There is only the commitment to change, which is just what the angel doesn’t want. She begs for stasis, but that just isn’t human nature, and certainly not the American way.
The production is spare, and Michael Mayer’s direction is lean. Not much in the way of spectacle and tricky theatrics; this is all about words and ideas. The performances are generally terrific, especially Kate Goehring’s ethereal Harper, Robert Sella’s stalwart Prior, and Jonathan Hadary’s Roy Cohn, perfectly pernicious, though there are Midwest lapses in his Noo Yawkese.
These are characters in a play the country — the world — will not soon forget. So take part in theater history. See it as an all-day marathon, or see it in two installments. Just see it.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.