Tony Kushner's 'Slavs!' grew from earlier drama Company of 'Angels'

January 08, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize later, it's hard to believe that when he had written the first 50 pages of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner felt "it was a piece of dreck, and I was blowing it."

He needn't have worried. The two-part epic drama about politics, religion and AIDS is now playing worldwide, touring the United States and being made into a movie. It's also the force behind a new Kushner play that opens Wednesday at Center Stage -- "Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness)."

" 'Slavs!' is in many ways a coda to 'Angels,' " says Kushner, whose latest script is one of the hottest new plays at regional theaters.

The 90-minute work, a far cry from the seven hours of "Angels," has scenes set in Moscow in 1985, Siberia in 1992, and heaven. Its characters include high-ranking Politburo members, a hard-drinking lesbian security guard and a mute, 8-year-old victim of radioactive waste. Kushner describes its tone as shifting from a "kind of clown show" to "very, very grim stuff."

Kushner's opinion about the play that would give birth to "Slavs!" began to change after the New York Theatre Workshop gave a public reading of "Millennium Approaches," the first part of "Angels," in the fall of 1988.

"I basically just thought, 'This is horrible,' " Kushner recalls in a telephone interview. "It was so long. It was only half of the play, but it was already 212 pages long. At every intermission I asked the audience if they'd just like to stop and go home. It took like four hours to go through it, and they stayed."

His confidence continued to rise when the New York Theatre Workshop expressed interest in obtaining the rights, and, he says, "Word started getting around and [other] people wanted to do it, and it got weirder and weirder."

"Slavs!" also received encouragement from a public reading. The play is constructed in part from a series of scenes Kushner wrote as prologues for each act of "Perestroika," the second part of "Angels." All but one of these scenes were cut when "Perestroika" ran too long. "But," he says, "I brought them out occasionally and would bring them out when I was asked to do readings.

"I did one last year with the cast of 'The Kentucky Cycle,' . . . and I was very excited by the response to it. . . . That sort of cinched it. We did this reading, and then I sat down and very quickly wrote the rest of it."

"Slavs!" -- which was commissioned by the Actors Theatre of Louisville -- debuted there in March as part of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. It was the star of that prestigious festival.

Lisa Peterson, who directed the Louisville and Center Stage productions, as well as one currently running off-Broadway, describes "Slavs!" as "a cry from a liberal heart." Since the play's debut, America has experienced a pronounced shift to the political right. But in a recent Center Stage lecture, Peterson said, "In regard to the elections last fall, the play has become even more topical."

Kushner, who is a Socialist, concurs: "I've always been intrigued by the way that the meaning of a play that's overtly political changes when the political climate changes. We've just witnessed a very drastic, and in my opinion, calamitous, shift in at least the surface political landscape. Because the play touches on despair, and the terror of a lack of alternatives, it's timely now. The play was always intended to be, and it works very much as, a statement about America and Russia. I've always believed the two countries have linked destinies."

The playwright, who spoke optimistically about the political state of the country during a visit to Center Stage last winter, gets a different tone in his voice when he talks about the new Republican majority in Congress. It's easy to see why Peterson describes him as a man for whom "Politics is life."

"I think they're going to destroy every major urban area in the country, under-fund social services to the poor to a genocidal extent and destroy public education in the United States. I'm from the South, and I know what [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich -- he's a soldier of the Confederacy. It's the triumph of Jefferson Davis. I think these people are out to destroy the idea of a federal government," says Kushner, who grew up in Lake Charles, La.

A prominent and outspoken proponent of gay rights, he sees a ray of hope in "the growing political clout of the gay and lesbian movement." The widespread interest in and acclaim for "Angels in America," which is subtitled, "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," may be one indication of the proliferation of that movement. It's a play with which he remains closely involved.

Besides doing some rewrites for the touring production -- now in Chicago and coming to Washington's Kennedy Center this spring -- he has finished the screenplay of Part 1 ("Millennium Approaches") and has "mostly finished" Part 2 ("Perestroika"). The two parts will be made into separate movies, directed by Robert Altman.

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