Journal of the Plague Years

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

Still, because Kushner retains his remarkable ability to converge and diverge and otherwise overlap stories and motifs, Perestroika is, in all senses of the word, fabulous: astonishing, successful, mythic. Hannah, Joe's mother, who migrates from Mormon Utah to "rescue" her homosexual son in much the same way that Harper zooms off to San Francisco to repair her soul, winds up comforting the solitary journeyer Prior. Prior, who has taken to wearing a hooded black robe "like the wrath of God," embraces life the best a campy man can, singing "Hark the herald angels sing" with Belize, a black, drag-queen nurse. Belize, who takes nobody's crap, wrestles with the fact that he must minister to AIDS-infected closeted homosexual, and uncloseted homophobe, Roy Cohn.

Cohn, who hordes a stash of AZT, is such a paradoxical pillar of weakness that he's a black sheep relation to the Angel. The Angel, who has a peculiar stutter, likes to proclaim "The great work begins" to Prior, who ends the play by saying the same thing, which I modify: the great work, via Kushner, is here.

Good, if not great, work via director Michael Wilson is at the Alley. Efficiently working the corners of the small Neuhaus Arena stage -- scenic designer Tony Straiges has added a swirl of autumn leaves to his spare, intuitively right set of symmetrical benches on a hardwood floor -- and discretely cutting the text, Wilson ensures that audience attention never flags. Stagehands in costume designer Caryn Neman's smart bellhop uniforms dash across the stage with splashes of white fabric, the unfurling crisscrosses suggesting Antarctica in a snap. When it's time for Prior to ascend to heaven, a guilded ladder ceremoniously descends from the catwalk.

Wilson likes to entertain, and while that helps him mine Perestroika's abundant humor, it leads him to underexpose its eloquence, its pathos, its sublimity: the production doesn't take the risks the overpowering text does. Wilson particularly lets Kushner down in the lackluster seduction scenes between the Angel and Prior, the Angel and Hannah, and Joe and Louis.

The most fearless performer is Annalee Jefferies as dazed Harper. With a lazy, lulling monotone that wills itself to haggard neediness, and with a physical dumpiness that belies a soaring spirit, Jefferies makes Harper so vulnerable that the actress rarifies her, giving her that most blessed of gifts, a state of grace. John Feltch, reaching like he hasn't in recent years, provides Prior with great dignity, effeminate charm and wry wisdom. Terribly afraid and yet terribly courageous, his Prior is all the hesitant hero Kushner intends.

James Black both captures the savage intelligence of the anti-hero Cohn and reveals his timid inner core, but Black needs to turn up his emotions a notch. Cohn, who identifies with the lowlife determination of pubic lice, threatens to bite when he doesn't get his way, warning that he has "rabies." We're drawn to his ferocity even as we're repulsed by his convictions. But Black, lurking around the heart of darkness instead of invading it, is too petty to be larger than life.

Much to the Alley's credit, Perestroika picks up right where Millennium Approaches left off. My biggest disappointment was having to see the shows weeks apart. I have a suspicion that in experiencing them on successive days or, better still, back-to-back, a sort of sublime exhaustion followed by a anticipatory second wind would set in for audience and actors alike. And isn't that what Angels in America is all about? "The great question before us," reveals Prelapsarianov, "is: are we doomed?" Thanks to the astounding Kushner and the competent Alley, the answer is no, not by a long shot.

Angels in America, parts one and two, plays through June 11 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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