Building the Monolith

Angels in America, Part One: Millenium

The parable's ominous resonance implies the presence of bigotry, but the only homophobia we see onstage is the gay internalized kind: Cohn yelling that he has "cancer," Pitt's ulcerating angst. (Another tiny irony, against the bigots who babble about gay "education": Joe found his gayness through the Bible story of Jacob's struggle with the angel.) Newly empowered as a political group, gays and lesbians are seeing their issues become the decade's central themes: equal rights, AIDS funding, gays in the military, rainbow curricula.

This agenda, of course, won't save America; it merely adds another to the pile of "small problems" that make up the monolith. But it makes Angelsthe right play at the right time. Its materials are familiar from a flood of other plays on gay themes; its techniques (overlapping scenes; dreams and fantasies cracking the realistic surface) are standard fare Off-Off Broadway. What's new is its remix of the old elements in a big, bold way that speaks to our current condition. More than that can't be said, really, till Part Two's onstage and we see what shape Kushner's monolith takes.

Given the pressure of the advance hype, the wonder is that George C. Wolfe's staging holds together at all. Not well integrated or thought-out, it opts for a kind of blank neutrality to satisfy all the conflicting expectations at once. Too elaborate for the pared-down version Kushner's notes request, yet too sparing of its effects to drown the play in glitz, it gets the many scenes on and off with a flat, neat efficiency; indeed, Robin Wagner's sliding velour panels suggest office furniture. A few scenes are heavily overdone; others, like the climactic quartet, are stilted and empty. It's strange, since Wolfe's previous directorial work has shown him to be just the kind of visionary this play needs; his earlier stagings were flawed by tending to drown the material in his visions. Here, with a script that could probably withstand the attack, his work seems noncommittal and conceptless, a set of problems to be solved on the way to more important things.

His cast, partly inherited from earlier versions, is a mixed bag, with almost everyone but Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, and David Marshall Grant trying too hard, veering in and out of emotional focus—especially frustrating in Stephen Spinella's Prior, which at its best moments is very moving. Joe Mantello's efforts to whip up Louis's angst only seem to distance him further from the character, while Marcia Gay Harden, amusing in the small role of a sappy bureaucrat, never quite convinces you that Harper Pitt's tortured language could emerge from her brain. There's no such problem with Ron Leibman's brilliant, top-seed, horror cartoon of Roy Cohn, but its excess points up a flaw in the play's logic: Even the most hopelessly sheltered Mormon would also have to be an epic dimbulb to mistake this stooped, scuttling, manic creature for a man of integrity. (The suave, impassive Cohn of Ron Vawter's solo piece would be more apt.)

Still, the main point is that half of Angels in Americais finally here: the messenger has arrived, though we haven't yet heard the whole message. Meanwhile, Kushner has clearly fulfilled at least some of his big ambitions. Those of us who took A Bright Room Called Dayseriously always knew he could, and those who know the downtown theater form which so much of Angels'ssensibility is drawn will take strength from its popularity, and not fret about the inane uptown hullabaloo that treats it as the only play ever written in America.

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