Puppet Strings of Others' Love

December 15, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--One of the most moving moments I have ever experienced in the theater occurs in the second half of Tony Kushner's ''Angels in America,'' which opened recently on Broadway. When the first part of this 7 1/2-hour-long play came to Broadway in the spring, many people (I among them) wondered how Mr. Kushner could ever top his spectacular opening moves. There were so many disparate themes and people to be woven together that he seemed to have assigned himself a project impossible.

But he has done it. Part 2 (''Perestroika'') is even better than Part 1 (''Millennium Approaches''). The same eight actors fill all the roles, with frequent doubling, and they have settled into their parts with increased familiarity. It used to be said of Dickens that his readers developed such affection for his characters that they could hardly wait for each one to reappear in the story. Something like that is what keeps this long play from dragging. Each time a new scene brings back some character, one feels a jolt of expectation.

Mr. Kushner loves his characters. Even Roy Cohn? Even Roy Cohn. When Cohn dies of AIDS, a male nurse steals his hoarded stock of the drug AZT to give it to other AIDS patients. To assuage his guilt over the theft, the nurse asks a secularized Jewish character, Louis, himself feeling guilty for abandoning his AIDS-stricken lover, to recite the Jewish prayer over the dead (Kaddish) for Cohn.

Louis does not remember the prayer, and does not want to say it for a blackguard like Cohn. But the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn helped send to the electric chair, has been hovering about Cohn's deathbed, and she starts intoning the Kaddish. Louis finds his own lips moving, and the words coming out, as the living and dead reintegrate Cohn (and themselves) into their Jewish community. It is a heart-stopping moment.

Even the role-doubling of the play shows how people live each other's lives as well as their own. It is not only AIDS that gets transmitted from person to person. We infect each other with our hopes, dreams, possibilities.

People in this play wander into one another's fantasy life, redeeming one another with shared strength and weakness. A strange glow of mutual regard surrounds the entire cast by the end. We leave them with regret, to keep dealing with their broken lives, each one picking up some fragment of the others' past, piecing themselves together again and again. These people are themselves the angels in America.

Though the play is overt in its morality -- its message of communal need and power -- it is certainly not preachy. It has a deathbed humor and irreverence. The male nurse, Belize, brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wright, has become a one-man Greek chorus commenting on all the others' foibles. Stephen Spinella, the principal AIDS victim, has a voice and body that skitter all over the place in reaction to his feverish visions and panicky moods. He is a kind of dancing skeleton held up on puppet strings of others' concern and love, including that of the audience. He entertains, and blesses. So does Tony Kushner. Bless him.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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