Journal of the Plague Years

Part two of Angels may not match part one, but it's brilliant still

After crashing through Prior Walter's ceiling, the Angel of America -- a mixed blessing if ever there was one -- commands Prior to unearth sacred prophetic implements from their hiding place. But he says no way; he'll lose his security deposit if he tears up the kitchen floor. Later, doing research on his celestial visitor, the reluctant prophet Prior checks out the diorama room of a Mormon visitor's center. There, he encounters a woman named Harper, who's hiding out from her bewilderingly unsatisfying life with Joe, her newly gay, Mormon, Republican lawyer of a husband. Since Harper pops Valium, takes hallucinatory journeys to pristine, faraway places such as Antarctica and is given to having "thresholds of revelation," she's unfazed by Prior's claim of divine intervention, speculating that because she married a "fairy," she, herself, might be a witch. As they watch a surreal mannequin wagon-train presentation about the first Mormon prophet, they share an epiphany: they discover that the man for whom Joe has left Harper is Prior's ex-lover Louis, a lover who abandoned Prior when Prior contracted AIDS. Prior and Harper have a lot to talk about.

They have even more to talk about when -- involved in an altogether different type of floorshow -- they later meet up in heaven. "Are you dead?" Prior asks. "No," Harper responds, "I just had sex." When she asks him the same question, the chosen one replies that he's there on business.

Thus continues, at the Alley, the second part of what may well be the theatrical event of the late 20th century, Angels in America. While not quite as realized as part one, Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika sustains playwright Tony Kushner's thrilling fusion of the epic with the intimate, the spiritual with the comic, the base with the profound, the symbolic with the literal. Perestroika has all the breezy, fluid urgency of Part 1: Millennium Approaches and, taken together, the two function as a stunning testament to the power of emotional spectacle, artifice opened full-throttle to paradoxically arrive at the most sincere of effects: humankind's variegated core. With anger, compassion and, above all, wicked wit and breathless showmanship, Kushner offers nothing short of a journal of the plague years, 1985 to the present.

What prevents Perestroika, a very, very good play, from being the masterpiece of Millennium Approaches has to do with Kushner's vision. Though both parts are clarion calls to political activism in the AIDS era, part one has a larger scope in mind, looking through the prism of sexuality in a tragic time to reflect on how we, as a nation, view love, interconnectedness, responsibility, hypocrisy, truth and justice. Millennium Approaches is about the setting up of problems -- cracking open a moment of our national history -- through vivid characters, ominous panache and an unerring sense of how art can make all things possible.

Perestroika wants to play out, if not solve, these problems, and it's here that Kushner falters. In trying to devise an expansive philosophy, he bends his imagination until it nearly breaks. Part two begins in serious fun, with Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov -- the oldest living Bolshevik -- speechifying about needing "a theory" to proceed further. At play's end, other characters also debate the importance of a system of thought to live by, praising Mikhail Gorbachev for making a leap into the unknown via perestroika (hence the play's title). Kushner is trying to suggest that just as Russians moved forward following the collapse of their government, we can similarly progress in the void of AIDS. But the parallel is sketchy and wishful. Kushner's most cogent statement is the rather simplistic notion that we should "go now" or "choose life." So when Prior, refusing to become a "virus of prophecy," wrestles the Angel in the play's ultimate climax of affirmation, the image feels not just pat but, given Kushner's vividness elsewhere, uninspired.

In part one, the Angel is a deus ex machina of ambiguous portent, and the metaphoric value of her prolonged imminence is huge. In part two, she's a major character, but who she turns out to be pales in contrast to the role we've imagined for her. She's better as a looming idea than an actual presence, due in no small part to her supernatural monologues, which are long on religious admonitions but short on metaphysical elucidation. After a while she simply loses her miraculous novelty appeal and hinders the action. Kushner uses her to advance some sort of crucial cosmo-ontological sexuality, but Michel Foucault he's not.

But then Kushner isn't a philosopher, he's a playwright, which makes more surprising his occasional oversights in character development and plot. When Louis, supposedly wracked with guilt, wants to come back to Prior, we don't really witness his transformation; surely it's not simply his increasing disillusion with Joe that motivates him. For his part, Joe is said to grow from his new-found homosexuality, but again we're simply told this, not shown it. And when late in the play, in a turn of events too neat for its own good, Louis breaks up with Joe and Joe then desperately pleads with Harper to take him back, his action is largely unaccounted for. While Harper's reaction is a long time in coming, Joe's is unsatisfyingly reduced to a heterosexual spin on being on the homosexual rebound.

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