Our Better Angels

For a brief period in the early 1990s, a window opened in the American theater, and it appeared that this tired realm of English drawing-room comedies, tepid, middle-class dramas involving a chronic ailment, and Neil Simon was finally going to get a blast of fresh air. Playwrights were writing Big Plays about Big Ideas, and theaters—at least a handful of enlightened ones—were producing them. You had Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle, an epic look at the brutal underside of America's rural history; Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, an epic look at the Los Angeles riots of 1992; and the Denver Theater Center's Black Elk Speaks.Even Tommy,which attempted to bring the Who's classic album to the stage, was a huge departure for the musical theater.

But we lost track of them all in the high-watt glow of Tony Kushner's two-part epic, Angels In America. That play (produced in Los Angeles in 1992, followed by New York runs the next two years before a national tour that set down in Los Angeles in 1995) earned the playwright consecutive Pulitzer Prizes. It was a huge hit everywhere, from London to San Francisco. Even near-sighted, seen-everything, tight-assed monkeys who type about theater for a somewhat-living hailed it as one of the most important dramatic works of the 20th century.

And they did so with good reason. Angels In America was a leftist screed against the moral and political corruption of Reaganism. It celebrated life in the face of AIDS. It was angry, and it was poignant and unabashedly theatrical, and it truly did seem to capture the feelings of a part of the population shut out of the political discourse for at least 12 years. It also debuted at the Mark Taper Forum the day after Bill Clinton—the man from Hope—was elected president.

But that was then, and this is now, and the window briefly open has been shut. Big plays with big themes and big, bold ideas are a rarity today. Commercial theater is, by its very essence, a conservative and small-minded entity serving a conservative and small-minded demographic that likes its entertainment nice, tidy and non-provocative. And when theaters gamble—as South Coast Repertory did with last year's ambitious staging of Howard Korder's The Hollow Lands—the aforementioned near-sighted, seen-everything, tight-assed monkeys who write about theater whine and fret that the thematic scope is just too big, the canvas too vast, the script too wordy.

If smaller theaters have the guts and desire to mount such plays, they don't have the facilities—i.e., the cash—to pull off the technical bells and whistles. That means you'll rarely see a production of Angelsor other plays of its ilk.

So let us now, through gnashing teeth, offer a huge hallelujah for daring college theater departments. Last year, it was Fullerton College's rousing production of The Kentucky Cycle. This year, it's Cal State Long Beach's current production of the second part of Kushner's Angels saga, subtitled Perestroika.

It's a stunning choice for a college theater department, and it's one that shows that even a young, undergraduate theater department can handle Angels. Even better, it shows that Kushner's play wasn't hyped solely because it was a cultural rallying cry for the gay community or for the re-emerging leftist intelligentsia, circa 1992. It is, simply, a great play. It fuses poetry and imagination with heartbreaking poignancy and searing political discourse. And it's still a play that provokes everything from anger and shame to existential dread and tears.

Long Beach State can't do anything about the changing political context—this ain't 1992. Bill Clinton has turned out to be the name from Hopeless, and many Americans figure George W. Bush won the White House in a badly bungled—even rigged—election. In the world of this production (directed by Ashley Carr Jr., who staged the first part of Kushner's play last year at Cal State Long Beach), Perestroikalacks some of the urgency and euphoria that surrounded its initial production and even its retooled version in 1995—when it was the hottest ticket in the country from New York to Los Angeles. But Kushner's prescient takes on everything from gay rights and racial discrimination to the rebirth of compassionate conservatives proves the validity of his politics. Significantly, the poetic, humanitarian strength of his writing still elevates his story over those politics. This is still a play that can break your heart in 10 different ways.

If you didn't see Angels In America Part One, buy the play and read it before seeing Perestroika.You will see that Perestroikapicks up where Millennium Approachesleaves off. It's January 1986; “AIDS” is still a dirty word; the country is awash in Reaganism; and Prior Walter (Phil Van Hest), an AIDS-ravaged thirtysomething who gets a boner every time he hears a voice, has suddenly been visited by that Voice. It's an angel (Talia Rose) who has burst through his ceiling to announce that Prior is the prophet who will begin “the great work.”

Like the Jews, Prior is an odd choice. His former lover, Louis Ironson (Jason Maximillian Weissbrod), left him in Part One when Prior disclosed his sickness; Louis is now shacking up with Joe Pitt (Joe Arrigoni), a Mormon lawyer who works as a clerk for the federal court in Brooklyn. Joe is so closeted he's doing dirty work for Roy Cohn (Jack Griguoli), the arch-conservative and former hatchet man for Joseph McCarthy—the “polestar of evil” for liberals, as Kushner puts it. In a supreme double-cross, Cohn is hiding from Joe the fact that he is gay and has AIDS—even though he sits on a horde of the life-preserving AZT available to few HIV-positives.

If this sounds like a soap opera, it may well be that this is the genius soap operas would reach if they could. Joe left his valium-addicted wife, Harper (Danielle Bearden-Mead), for Louis; now Harper is nuttier than before and—yes—dreaming of angels and talking Mormon dioramas. Also along for the wild ride are Joe's mother, Hannah Pitt (Chanell Oliver), fresh from Salt Lake City after learning her son is bedding men, and Belize (Anthony Guillmeno), Prior's best friend and a hospital nurse who winds up caring for the foul-mouthed Cohn in his hospital bed.

The plot unfolds like a Robert Altman film, seamlessly following the occasionally crossed paths of its characters. But it's truly Prior's play, and Van Herst draws a wonderful portrait of his character's vulnerability and defiance. He is the one the angels have chosen; he is the one transported to a godless heaven where angels ridicule humanity's ridiculous attempts to hang onto a life riddled with sadness and disappointment; and he is the one who ultimately says the angels are wrong: life may be sad, life may be a bust, but it's the best thing he's got.

That's just a surface description of Perestroika,a word borrowed from end-of-the-Soviet-empire Russian meaning “rebuilding.” All the characters are dealing with issues of abandonment, betrayal and hypocrisy, from the impending loss of their own lives to the loss of their loved ones. In some way, they must all rebuild.

It's not unusual to see talented actors in an undergraduate production; juniors and seniors can have up to six years of high school and college training. But it is rare to see an ensemble cast so uniformly capable of dealing with such a smart script, and even rarer to find actors anywhere capable of wrapping their mouths around the thicker portions of Kushner's dialogue. There isn't a weak link in the cast, with Van Hest's Prior and Guillmeno's Belize the brightest lights among an ensemble that uniformly shines.

Director Carr moves this three-hour play swiftly across Andrew Deppen's spartan set—a set built primarily of two slabs of gray concrete that double for everything from hospital beds to angelic platforms. Carr remains true to Kushner's Brechtian approach—the episodic, quick-cut scene changes and the brooding atmosphere—but skillfully manages to weave Kushner's decidedly anti-Brechtian imaginative forays into spirituality and the supernatural.

This is a triumphant production of a play that may have been too hyped in its initial productions. But nearly 10 years after the angel first broke through Prior's ceiling and turned American theater on its head, this relatively small production proves that Angelswill have wings for as long as there are theater companies anywhere—anywhere—willing to produce it.

Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika at Studio theater, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526. Opens Tues. Tues.-Thurs., 6 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. Through April 28. $12-$15.

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