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THEATER REVIEW : 'Angels' Can Make Any Burden Seem Bearable

August 14, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"There are no angels in America," says Louis Ironson, a character in the play whose very title suggests otherwise. "Angels in America" explores the country's spiritual and moral character--something the compulsive philosopher Louis Ironson swears doesn't exist. And yet he can't stop talking about it.

For anyone who cares about such phantom subjects as the spiritual and moral character of a country, "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's two-part, 7 1/2-hour epic, is a play to see and see again. Funny, heart-breaking and uplifting, "Angels" is filled with unexpected fusings of human connection so imaginative and lyrical that they make life seem a gift and any burden bearable. And what more can a play do?

"Angels" began life in one part in a 1990 Mark Taper workshop. It was produced at San Francisco's Eureka Theater, ricocheted to London's West End, came back to open in two parts ("Millenium Approaches" and "Perestroika") at the Taper. The play then went to Broadway, where it was lavishly awarded. Now a touring company is traversing the country so that even the heartland can see a first-rate production of the most talked-about drama in decades. This version, with a new director, new cast, new set and a second half reworked since its last Los Angeles production, is at the Doolittle Theatre until Sept. 2.

So, what do a Mormon woman from Utah, an African American drag queen and Roy Cohn have in common? "Angels" answers this question and many more. It shows how people are interconnected by fewer than six degrees of separation, how they help to save each other in ways they can't know. Even Cohn, poster boy for homosexual self-hatred and one of the great vicious personalities of 20th-Century America, contributes to the general mix. In Kushner's millennial optimism, nothing goes to waste, no life is beyond some kind of redemption. And, oh yes, there is justice, no matter how strange and elliptical it may be.

For Louis, the gay moralizing liberal, Cohn is the "polestar of human evil." Just how Louis (Peter Birkenhead) comes to be the person who says Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, at Cohn's hospital bed, is another twist in the great and surprising human evolution. And Louis will get something extraordinary in return.

"When I got up this morning, this is not how I envisioned the day would end," says Hannah Pitt, a Mormon woman who comes to New York from Utah in search of her wayward son, Joe (Philip Earl Johnson). Instead, she ends up caring for an AIDS patient named Prior, the man who Louis, in his terror of sickness, deserted. In fact, all of the characters wind up in unexpected alliances, with each desertion causing a new connection somewhere else.

At the start of the play, an ancient rabbi remarks that we Americans do not take great journeys anymore, like the one taken by the Jews who came from the old world at the beginning of the century. But "Angels" shows that those voyages are still made, and great distances are still traversed, if only psychically. Prior (Robert Sella) is graced with several mysterious visits. In one dream, he meets Harper, a lonely Brooklyn housewife (Kate Goehring), whose husband is Joe, a closeted gay Mormon attorney and protege of Cohn's. Across worlds as diverse as any the Jews traveled, Prior and Harper find a connection. Prior is also visited by a beautiful angel (Carolyn Swift) who comes crashing through his ceiling, bearing portentous messages, and proclaiming sexuality--of whatever variety--as a holy force in the universe.

This being a secular humanist vision, Kushner's angel is a fallible one. Despite her Charlton Heston tone, she makes mistakes. Also imperfect is the heaven that Kushner depicts. It doesn't have a God. And yet it is still a heaven. Prior is invited to join a convocation of angels there. He opts instead for "more life." Sick as he is, sad as he is, he wants to return to the Bethesda Fountain in New York's Central Park, recognized in his heart as the most beautiful place on heaven or on Earth.

Supervised by original Broadway director George C. Wolfe, Michael Mayer directs an excellent cast. As Prior, Sella runs the gamut from indomitably funny to terrified to outraged to tender. His friend Belize, the sometime drag queen/male nurse, is wonderfully played by Reg Flowers, who demonstrates the art of always facing life with sang-froid and flair. Goehring is an earthier and less fragile Harper than the others I've seen. She lets you see just how tough and funny this apparent doormat really is. As Cohn, Jonathan Hadary is a terrifying nasal screamer, a man who desperately believes in his own demented moral universe until the very end. Looking like the young Dean Jones, Philip Earl Johnson is very effective as the weirdly amoral Joe, a kind of tabula rasa that Cohn would like to write on. Peter Birkenhead is good but he pushes the whininess, the fretting feyness of Louis more than he needs to.

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