A Sound of Hovering Wings

Throughout Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches -- the first part of a seven-hour drama of love, sex, politics and the spirit -- the most consistent story line comes through a series of progressively majestic pronouncements of the approach of a mysterious angel, whose eventual arrival marks the end of Millennium and sets the stage for part two of the epic, Angels in America: Perestroika.

A similar series of progressively thunderous annunciations have trumpeted the approach of Angels in America itself: more Tony and Drama Desk awards than any play within recent memory; critics' ecstatic accolades; T-shirts; lofty, full-color newspaper previews; sold-out houses weeks in advance; and a chic opening night crowd. As the press packet, which is accompanied by a white feather, says in ornate letters: "Prepare the Way." It feels rather as if humble Houston is being visited by the Pope, or Elvis. With such brouhaha, it's almost a letdown when you see the actual event. Almost -- except that Angels is such a powerful, all-encompassing work, both epic and intimate, that it holds its own against this preparatory fuss.

With eight actors playing 20 characters, Angels' interweaving story focuses on two couples -- one gay, one straight -- and Roy Cohn, the lawyer who was Senator Joseph McCarthy's right-hand man during his Red Scare rampage, and who died in 1986 of AIDS. The straight couple, Harper and Joe, are Mormons. Harper is an agoraphobic; she stays home all day in their Brooklyn apartment, taking Valium and playing in the field of her hallucinations. Meanwhile, Joe negotiates the impossible tightrope of being Cohn's protege while remaining ethically upstanding and takes long walks at night to the Central Park boatyards to watch the homosexual liaisons. The gay couple, Louis and Prior, have been lovers for four years. But when Prior shows his companion a Karposi's Sarcoma spot on his arm, the didactic, philosophizing Louis soon can't handle the prospect of his lover's decline into awful infirmity and abandons him.

In an epic such as Angels, in which we get to spend an extended period of time with the characters, a certain intimacy sets in; the play's episodic, twined tales give the audience a feeling of connectedness that engenders tenderness. We get to know these people; their lives become part of our lives. The Alley's radical choice to put Angels on the Arena Stage accentuates this intimacy. The audience begins to feel as though it's sharing in a cooperative experience, the actors and playgoers in plain view of each other, some front-row audience members almost entering into the performance as the spotlights lap at their feet.

But the Arena's close quarters also tend to detract from Angels' magical theatricality -- the "multi-media" screens above the four exits, the Sensurround rumblings. Lately, the Alley's been going for more cinematic effects (fireworks projected behind the stage of Arms and the Man, a grass-rattles soundtrack behind The Crucible) with dubious success. Kushner calls his style "Theater of the Fabulous," and a simultaneous tongue-in-cheek and serious tone marks the whole show. The angel's arrival especially is a fairly schmaltzy affair, "very Steven Spielberg," as Prior calls it in the midst of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind light show. (Applause is due whoever was under his bed, scooting it all over the stage.) With a certain over-the-top, half-camp grandeur, the angel is wheeled on-stage perched atop a glorified TV cart, looking like a cross between the Statue of Liberty and Mozart's father, a wedding-cake ornament of a celestial visitation. Although the special effects are intended to be simultaneously cheesy and thrilling, they tend more toward high hokeyness.

Michael Wilson's direction capitalizes on the Alley's strengths -- its superb resident company, its cozy underground venue (stage painted celestial blue) -- while adapting the play slightly for Houston's less adventurous audiences. (Despite being sold out with a crowd of standbys, the opening night house sported many empty seats, I suspect because season ticket holders may have feared Angels was too strong for their blood.) Drag scenes and Prior's "girl talk" with a friend named Belize were pitched at a suburban sensibility, the very act of drag itself being an occasion for nervous hooting. But these small matters aside, Wilson's direction was both deft and tender, encompassing the important material with a maturity and grace.

With a play this heroic we don't have just one protagonist acting as a gravitational center but several. We follow Prior as he dives inexorably into the pain and vision of his illness, and John Feltch gives a resounding, full-bloodied performance as the abandoned yet ever-laconic victim of disease; he lives the role of the dying man with a wry sensuousness, an all-or-nothing submersion. Unfortunately, his fire is not matched by Joseph Haj as his weak partner, Louis. We don't get any of the tumult of a man who grapples with politico-philosophic conundrums but can't bear to be present when real, bloody life comes down. Nor do we get his playfulness (when he flirtingly teases Joe it just seems out of character), nor his love for Prior. Haj's Louis is stiff, pat and set; his character supposedly anguishes, but he doesn't seem to change.

Likewise Joe, the other character who's wrestling with demons. David Whalen plays the ambivalent Mormon as a cipher, too benign and ordinary. Although both he and Louis are the mixed-up ones, the conflicted and deserting lovers, they both lack that final oomph that pushes a negative character over the brink into humanity and a candidate for our sympathies. Joe's blanked himself out, willfully, in his attempt to smother the part in him he believes is sinful; we feel that blank, but that's all we're left with.

Still, haunting and visionary and loopy, Angels' portrayals of love adrift enters the audiences' dreams, especially the portrayal of poor, unhappy Harper, who feels so forsaken by her Mormon husband but doesn't know why. Annalee Jeffries plays her character indelibly, her Harper padding about in thick knit socks, grinning irrepressibly as she brings a child's courage to bear on her very adult problems, giddily zooming through her hallucinations, yet pulling back to impishly remark, "Wow, I must've really slipped the tether, huh?" And as Roy Cohn, James Black is stooped and amazing in his megalomaniacal keenness. Alley favorite Black not only brings his signature loudmouth, black-heartedness to the role, but as he gets sick he becomes a very ashen, pathetic yet strong black-hearted loudmouth.

Angels are in the air these days. Fitting neatly into America's latest Zeitgeist, angels have seized the popular (and commercial) imagination, from cherubim shower curtains to archangel stationery, as well as the loftier strata, such as Wim Wenders lyrical film about angels in Berlin, Wings of Desire. People point to this angelic fad as a quickening of spiritual longing in America, which it may or may not be. But it certainly presents fallow ground for Tony Kushner's incantation. A play as far-ranging and poetic and dreamlike as Angels has a chance to seep, like dry ice crawling under a door, into the playgoer's subconscious, take up residence, put down roots, enjoin him or her to return for part two, Perestroika. The interlocking tales in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches weave themselves into our lives till we can almost hear the rustling of angel wings outside the window, smell the succor of angel breath when panicked and distraught, feel the angel body present in our lover in the hour of close need and dark times. And, as shown so evocatively by Angels in America, these are dark times indeed.

Angels in America:
Millennium Approaches plays through June 11 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.


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