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The Book's The Thing

August 22, 1993|David Lohrey

The reading public rarely greets the publication of a highly acclaimed play with more than an imperceptible shrug. Perhaps, as is so often the case, the anonymous reader knows intuitively what few critics are willing to admit, namely, that few theatrical spectacles can stand the scrutiny of a close reading. Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" proves the exception. (Part One, "Millennium Approaches"--the part everyone liked when it played in Los Angeles last year--has just been published by Theatre Communications Group at $9.95 in paperback, 119 pp.)

How one season's hit is forgotten as a bit of entertainment while another season's hit becomes a lasting part of the literary canon is ultimately a mystery, but Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winner does have certain ingredients that may ensure its survival. In-jokes, faddish topicality, and stock characterization will doom any play, whatever success it may have in its time. What gives Kushner's work promise is his ability to place the immediate and fleeting in an enriching historical perspective. In "Angels," the subjects of AIDS and homosexuality are grounded in a historical vision that embraces no less than 600 years.

Kushner marries form and content with exquisite precision, employing devices which help his characters to rise to their highest emotional level while testing our dramatic expectations.

There are three narratives woven together here in a seamless whole. There is the loveless marriage of Joe and Harper Pitt, Mormons from Salt Lake City, whose life together is being poisoned by the husband's closeted homosexuality and the wife's Valium addiction. Joe, in turn, is being courted by the corrupt, red-baiting lawyer, Roy M. Cohn, who appeals to Joe's ambition by offering him a spot in Ed Meese's Justice Department in return for certain favors. While Harper enjoys drug-induced fantasies of world travel back at their New York apartment, Joe cruises Central Park until being picked up by Louis, a young man who has run out on his dying lover, Prior Walter.

Actors, too, will very likely return to this play, not only to satisfy their voracious appetites for juicy audition material, but also for that once-in-a-lifetime chance to essay a great role. Kushner's Roy Cohn is a mad, diabolical flight of fancy, a monster in silk pajamas, who, never at a loss for words, spews a malignant bile while clawing at the life being torn away from him. His fulminations curdle the blood, and when he screams "BETTER DEAD THAN RED," we know he means it.

Here at last is a worthy successor to that musty classic which continues to be read because it is safe, poetic, and something teacher remembers having seen on Broadway umpteen years ago. Here is a play with guts, lots of reading parts, and filled with the kind of words people actually hear and say. Let's face it: Few people read plays anymore. If there is to be any chance of reviving this enriching pastime, it will have to begin with plays like "Angels in America," which capture the imagination in the idiom of our time. Read it out loud; the words sing as no others have since "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

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