Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is about gay life in the AIDS era, love and betrayal, power and impotence, American politics and the possibility of higher meaning. It's a sprawling play with 20 characters (played by nine actors), at least six different plotlines and enough moral and emotional resonance to justify a host of smaller dramas. It's also long — about three hours in the current Stageworks production — and inconclusive, with many of its narrative strands only tied up in another (and less convincing) three-hour play, Angels in America: Perestroika.
Nevertheless, it's won just about every drama award out there (including the 1993 Pulitzer Prize) and is already widely accepted as one of the most important plays of the last 25 years. I can't think of another contemporary drama that has as much intellect, emotion, historical imagination and political fervor. Add a dash of theology — those angels in the title are real — and you have a challenging, provocative, modern American masterpiece.
And you also have a play that's exceedingly hard to stage well — as I discovered the other night watching the distressingly uneven Stageworks version. The problem isn't Anna Brennen's direction, which is really rather impressive considering the magnitude of the task. The problem is the acting, or, more precisely, the failure of too many actors here to convincingly embody the complicated, multi-dimensional figures of Kushner's narrative.
Yes, there are a few fine performances in the production, but there are also several that fail to convince us of their reality, fail to engage us emotionally, fail to fully mean what Kushner intends. I don't doubt that Angels in America can be a thrilling experience, but it was something more like impatience that I felt much of the time at the Shimberg Playhouse of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Things didn't add up. Scenes didn't ignite and performances didn't implicitly comment on one another. At the end of three hours, I was happy to be done. This is not as it should be.
As I said, there are several plots in Kushner's masterwork, and together they (should) add up to a vast comment on gay life in the late 20th century. There's the story of what happens to the couple, Louis and Prior, when Prior discovers that he's suffering from AIDS. Then there's the Mormon heterosexual couple, Harper and Joe, and what happens to them as Valium-addicted Harper goes through a nervous breakdown and Republican Joe discovers that he's gay.
There's Roy Cohn, the corrupt attorney and attack dog of the far right, and his response when he finds that he, too, is stricken with AIDS. And there's Hannah, Joe's mother, who leaves Salt Lake City to rescue her son from himself.
There are other plots, too, including Roy's attempts to get Joe to shill for him in Washington and Louis and Prior's encounters with nurse/former drag queen Belize. There are also Harper's hallucinogenic experiences of Antarctica and of the "travel agent" Mr. Lies and the cautious courtship of Joe and Louis and Prior's encounters with ancient ancestors and with an unasked-for, implacable angel. If this sounds like too many plotlines for one play, let me assure you that it's not: Kushner's a talented playwright who tantalizes but never bewilders his audience. With a writer this sure-handed, we could follow many more stories.
But so many narratives do call for a great deal of good acting, and it's here that the Stageworks production falls short. The first problem is Gary Luter's portrayal of Roy Cohn. Cohn is the most dazzling of Kushner's inventions, a witty, vain, immoral grandstander who refuses to be called gay because he believes that homosexuals lack political power, and who has no regrets about his part in McCarthyism and the execution of the Rosenbergs.
The role requires charisma, but Luter gives us caricature. He talks too loudly, gestures too broadly, utilizes an unrecognizable accent and generally plays Cohn as if on Saturday Night Live. Other problems aren't as egregious, but still detract from the play's effectiveness. As Prior, Jon Van Middlesworth comes across as passive and lacking an interior life. Denis McCourt as Joe Pitt — though facing the collapse of his marriage, the discovery of his homosexuality and Cohn's attack on his political morals — seldom convinces us that there's a struggle going on behind his forehead.
Nathan Burton as Belize is a little bit better, but he has none of the panache that Kushner has given the former drag queen — and little of the ethical certainty either. (Burton does a nice job with the small part of Mr. Lies, though.) Cohn, Prior, Joe and Belize: These four characters are often central to Angels, and if not played well can seriously weaken the play's impact. And that's just what happens in the Stageworks production.
Fortunately, there are four actors who turn in terrific performances and thus keep the play afloat whenever they're onstage. Best of all is Eric Davis as Louis Ironson, a man who discovers himself a traitor to his lover. Davis plays Louis as seriously conflicted, balancing self-confidence and guilt. He's visibly angry with himself, but unable to change. This is a character whose agony we can believe in and whose solutions are just as imperfect as his humanity.
Another fine performer is Robin O'Dell as Harper, the pill popping Mormon who dreams of a perfect Antarctic escape. O'Dell finds all the realism of this confused, tortured character, and reminds us of the human cost of her husband's struggle to be true to himself. Finally, Dawn Truax is wonderful in several small roles, not least as a pragmatic realtor in Salt Lake City. This is acting that shines, miniscule part or not.
It's hard to get excited, though, about Tandy Ecenia's set, a bunch of platforms with nothing on them but a bench and a few steps. More successful are the inventive costumes by Robin New and Simone Warner (check out the Antarctic garb); and Eric Davis' important sound design: portentous music that suggests not only our earthly realm but also something higher.
Finally, I should mention the mysteriously abstract slides projected against the back wall — on more than one occasion, these seemed absolutely magical.
Alas, the same can't be said for this production.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.