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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.

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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