'Angels' And The American Myth

March 11, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner is dressed in a conservative dark suit and bow tie, with a small gold hoop earring in his left ear lobe. A mass of black curls crowns his bespectacled face.

His appearance gives off mixed signals -- serious (the glasses and suit), jovial (the curls and bow tie) and forthright (the earring).

It's a look that serves as an apt metaphor for the seemingly contradictory juxtapositions in his hit Broadway play, "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." The eclectic cast characters in "Angels" includes a Mormon couple, a homosexual couple (one of whom has AIDS), the Red-baiting attorney Roy Cohn, and, of course, angels.

Kushner, in town earlier this week to address a newly formed society of major donors to Center Stage, resembles his play in another way, too. Tall and of ample girth, the 37-year-old playwright is a large presence; "Angels" clocks in at seven hours, in two parts.

Part one, "Millennium Approaches," won the Pulitzer, the Tony Award for best play and just about every other theatrical award last year. Part two, "Perestroika," which continues the story of the "Millennium" characters and which opened on Broadway in November, is a strong contender to win the awards again.

Former New York Times critic Frank Rich called part one "a searching and radical rethinking of the whole esthetic of American political drama," and part two, "a true millennial work of art."

After "Millennium Approaches" won the Pulitzer, Newsweek's Jack Kroll wrote, " 'Angels in America' is already the biggest event involving the gay movement in the history of American popular culture." And the esteemed British actor Sir Ian McKellen has proclaimed Kushner -- whose only previously produced original script, "A Bright Room Called Day," was a flop -- "a better writer than Bernard Shaw."

Kushner's use of diverse national themes in "Angels in America" stems from his belief that this country is made up of unusual combinations.

"Displaced people of various cultures and races and religious persuasions and sexual orientations have wound up making this country by accident," he explained in an interview before his Center Stage appearance. "In a way, this country is sort of the pile of debris at the foot of the capitalist calamity."

The notion of a white, Christian, heterosexual American majority is "a tremendously successful myth," he insists. "It does exactly what it is supposed to do, which is protect the money and property interests of America's power elite. . . . That's sort of the point of the play. I think that there are these shifts in the political constituency in this country."

Kushner's ability to combine disparate elements is one of his strengths and distinctions as a writer, says Center Stage's resident dramaturg James Magruder, whose friendship with the playwright is one of the reasons Kushner came to Baltimore. (The other reasons, as Kushner subsequently explained to the audience, are his admiration for Center Stage and for its artistic director, Irene Lewis, whom he had approached about directing "Angels" in New York.)

"What he's amazing at is synthesis -- the way he can pull everything together," says Magruder. "That's what 'Angels in America' is -- this incredible synthesis of American characters."

Magruder points out that Kushner's personal history is also a rather incredible synthesis, beginning with his family's move from New York to Lake Charles, La., when he was 2 years old.

"He's obviously from a sort of New York intellectual Jewish family, but he grew up in the wilds of Louisiana with a father who was a conductor of a symphony but also ran a lumber business, and a mother who was a musician and acted in local plays," Magruder says. "His sister is a visual artist. His brother is first horn for the Vienna Philharmonic. It's that sort of amazing family."

Kushner's numerous current projects reinforce the impression that he is a writer of broad interests and influences.

His one-act play "Slavs!" -- subtitled "Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness" and consisting partly of outtakes from "Perestroika" -- opened Wednesday at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Kushner served as co-dramaturg on the Public Theater's production of native Baltimorean Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which began preview performances this week. The play will move to $l Broadway next month.

California's La Jolla Playhouse has commissioned him to adapt a new version of Brecht's "The Good Person of Setzuan," to be produced there this summer with an original score by the rock group Los Lobos. Kushner also hopes, at some point, to write an adaptation of the classic Yiddish play "The Dybbuk," to be co-produced by the Hartford Stage Company and Center Stage.

His most pressing project, however, is the screenplay of "Angels in America," which will be filmed as two movies, directed by Robert Altman.

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