Playwright Tony Kushner has joked that his drag name should be "Eara Lee Prescient," after the nearly unanimous critical catchphrase, "eerily prescient," that greeted his Afghanistan-themed "Homebody/Kabul," written during the Taliban years but first produced mere months after Sept. 11, 2001.
An arguably more resonant prescience infuses Kushner's two-part masterwork "Angels in America," particularly as reconsidered now. This searching look back at the Reagan years played as a period piece during Clinton's presidency, but it has freshly searing culture-war relevance under the Dubya dispensation. "A permanent lock on the Oval Office? It's possible," effuses one Republican functionary, while a proud gay AIDS survivor calmly announces, "We will be citizens."
Of course, there's a lot more to "Part 1: Millennium Approaches" and "Part 2: Perestroika" -- the plays that make up Kushner's "gay fantasia on national themes" -- than hot-button politics. Their lyrical grapplings with freedom, faith, love and sex make them essential American documents as well as scintillating theatrical entertainments. They're much grander and stranger than last year's slick but hollow HBO movie would suggest -- huge in scope and intimate in feeling, fanciful as well as harrowing.
Unfortunately, neither their supernatural flights nor their naturalistic drama are done justice by a wobbly new production at the 99-seat NoHo Arts Center, directed by Karesa McElheny.
The best that can be said for this overambitious "Angels" is that it gives us a timely reintroduction to the material. We might just as well take the plays off the shelf and reread them. Then at least we could imagine (or recall) a better production than this.
McElheny marshals some resourceful stagecraft -- stark rigging for the angel, a sprawling, multilevel set (by Craig Siebels and Lacey Lee Anzelc), and deft lighting by Luke Moyer. But these can't hide the flaws in casting, direction and performance that keep this "Angels" stubbornly earthbound.
Some genuine sexual heat does stir between Joe (Jim Lunsford), a closeted Mormon lawyer, and Louis (Jamie Rogers), the brainy temp who's abandoned his AIDS-stricken lover Prior (David H. Ferguson).
Amanda Karr, as Joe's steely mother and a slyly spectral Ethel Rosenberg, among other roles, doesn't have a false moment. And Harmony Goodman makes a sleek, memorable angel -- seamlessly blending the ethereal and the earthly in a way that eludes the production's other supernatural elements.
Also conspicuously absent is the requisite sophistication. Of the three out gay men who greet the mounting AIDS plague with varying degrees of fortitude, only Rogers, as guilt-ridden Louis, sounds somewhat convincing delivering Kushner's bitingly witty dialogue. This is less true of the hard-working Ferguson and the one-dimensional, swishy Dejon Mayes, as male nurse Belize.
Utterly unconvincing throughout is Jeffrey Cabot Myers as unrepentant monster litigator Roy Cohn. Decades too young for this biliously juicy role, Myers compounds his miscasting with an unfailingly shallow performance.
"The great work begins" is more or less the closing line of both plays. The great work barely gets going in this impressively misguided effort.
'Angels in America'
Where: Open at the Top Productions and lilybeau productions at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood
When: "Part 1: Millennium Approaches": 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays. "Part 2: Perestroika": 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: April 10
Contact: (818) 508-7101, Ext. 5
Running time: "Millennium Approaches," 2 hours, 50 minutes; "Perestroika," 3 hours, 10 minutes