Angels in America: Millennium Approaches was originally described by its author as a "gay fantasia." Fantasia is right -- it's all over the place, sometimes several places at once. It's not an easy play and often is too smart for its own good. It is also an audacious choice to produce, even for the eclectic Gallery Players.
The plot, which involves the juxtaposition of two couples, is mainly the springboard for Kushner's ideas. These fly fast and furious, some dead on target, others scattershot. The dialogue alternates between stylized and real, but Angels in America never pretends to be anything but a play. It is also thick with words -- no one speaks like this, in poetic, speechifying paragraphs - and much of a production's success or failure depends on how well the cast navigates through them.
And for the most part, these actors trusted the torrents of words. As Harper, who holds her emotional problems close to her heart, Alisa Klein managed to be simultaneously funny and tragic, alternately cutting to the quick and indulging in her valium-aided fantasies. As Louis, who doesn't merely speak but explodes with verbiage, Eric Olson was clear, concise, irritating and sympathetic. The character of Prior carries the weight of the play's theme even as he resists being the chosen messenger, and Andrew Sellon effectively worked the pathos and the humor. The role's nudity was not shied away from.
More problematic were Patrick Dizney as Joe and Matthew Hamm as Roy Cohn. Dizney's underplaying Joe's ethical and sexual awakenings didn't really work towards making him sympathetic, and Hamm was locked into the Roy Cohn stereotype - the dependence on gestures and vocal mannerisms don't add up to a character. Kushner gives Cohn some trenchant words (particularly on the appearances of power), but they are the playwright's words, not the character's, and these parts are the weakest.
Everyone in the cast performed more than one role; notable were Marvin Safford's Belize, a good foil during Louis's rampage on Democracy in America; Mary Coburn, funny and effective as the Rabbi, but somewhat low-key as Joe's mother; and Jennifer Barnhart, covering all bases as a nurse, a bag lady, and the Angel.
Being performed on a smaller scale helped tilt the play, at first, in favor of the characters as people rather than as symbols. The wide stage was exploited to full advantage, and director Mark Harborth staged seamless transitions between scenes, and fully comprehensible scenic overlaps. The set, by Derek Haas, resembled a giant temple or mausoleum, and its dominant gray color was reflected in the characters' being dressed in shades of gray, black, and white. Except for Roy Cohn's dressing gown, what other colors did show up were muted. In the center of the stage was a terrific piece of stagecraft - an all purpose unit that was alternately a bed, a crumbling pedestal, a gravestone. Good, moody original music by Peter Griggs contributed to the feeling.
Both the play and this production have their longueurs, spread out as it is over three acts and running just over three hours (sometimes the urge strikes to shake one of the characters and shout "stop talking!"). By the third act some scenes were falling flat, partially due to authorial repetition. And in some ways, the play isn't current anymore - while it's no period piece, some of it will need footnotes soon. But when the ebb and flow of the characters' words are persuasive, the play does become vibrant, and its meaning resonates.
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler