A play calls, and a really, truly big city, a football city, would do well to answer it

November 08, 1995|By Mike Littwin

BALTIMORE GAINS a football team (the Browns) and loses a retailer (Saks), and I don't know what that says about our city that we didn't already know.

It's not a particularly hip town. In fact, somebody once described Baltimore as an old guy on a street corner with rain dripping off his hat.

On the other hand, the fashion news isn't all bad. For example, I think you'll soon see a proliferation of hometown football jackets and, possibly, caps.

I don't know. We like to think of ourselves as big town writ small, with an emphasis on neighborhoods and, of course, waitresses. But this is a city, too. Look at the murder count, if you don't believe me. Not to mention the traffic.

We also have culture, ranging from the BSO to Hammerjacks.

We've got big-time, or at least big-sized, bookstores now and many, many, many coffeehouses.

We even have poetry slams (those would be at coffeehouses where nobody drinks decaf).

Yeah, the library's closed on Fridays, and the school system is a wreck. But not only do we have Afghani food, we also have Chinese restaurants that deliver. That's a city.

And now we get a new challenge to our big-city-hood. It's as important, in its own way, as the challenge of getting NFL football back, so that we could prove we were as urbanely cosmopolitan as, say, Jacksonville.

The new challenge is issued in the form of a Tony Kushner play, "Angels in America," coming to the Mechanic on Thanksgiving week. It's actually two plays, running in repertory. Think of the first two "Godfathers" (but definitely not the third) and you get an idea.

The two parts run 3 1/2 hours each. And they're about, um, AIDS. And homosexuality. And Mormons. And the Reagan years. And good and evil. And the human condition. And the starring character is Roy "Have You No Decency" Cohn -- a Reaganite, Nixonite, anti-homosexual who happens to be gay himself and is dying of AIDS. Ethel Rosenberg also makes an appearance. (Jonathan Hadary, who did Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls," is wonderful as Cohn.)

Sound like fun?

Actually, it is. "Angels" is funny and fun and thought-provoking and one of the greatest theatrical events of the last few decades. It's the kind of play where you throw around the word "masterpiece" and you're not embarrassed.

And now "Angels" is coming to Baltimore on its limited national tour.

L If Baltimore is a big-time city, "Angels" should be a smash.

Except nobody's buying tickets. I know because I called. I wanted tickets for my college-age daughter, who has seen only Part 1. The operator wanted to know what time my daughter felt she could get there and said they'd start the play then. To say that tickets are available is to say that Art Modell has a PR problem in Cleveland.

I know what you're thinking. You're busy. And you're worried that this may not seem like a fun evening out, much less two fun evenings, particularly when your usual evening of fun involves the remote control.

Consider this: Both plays won Tonys. One won a Pulitzer. Frank Rich, when he was theater critic for the New York Times and was famous for not liking anything, called it "a work that never loses its wicked sense of humor. The most thrilling American play of my adult lifetime."

I saw both plays in Washington, with the same cast that's coming to Baltimore. Frank Rich didn't lie.

And this is your only chance to see "Angels in America." The plays aren't coming back.

They won't be performed at your neighborhood dinner theater. Your kid's high school isn't going to do them. I was stunned they even thought to take "Angels" on the road. It seemed too, well, challenging.

It is challenging. It is long. It is about AIDS.

So, why see it?

You'll laugh, you'll cry. And while no helicopter lands on stage, there is a very cool/scary angel who falls from the sky. (In fact, people have called the Mechanic box office to ask about the Christmas angel play. This ain't it.)

And then there's civic pride. Maybe there's something you ought to know. I'm told they sold out the run in Portland, Ore.

Where, it should be noted, they may never get pro football.

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