'Angels in America' offers something new Theater review: The two-part play by Tony Kushner is decidedly worth the seven hours it takes to watch.

November 24, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The identifications of actors Peter Birkenhead and Robert Sella of "Angels in America" were transposed in a photo caption in yesterday's Today section. Robert Sella is pictured at the top.

The Sun regrets the error.

At times funny, at times ugly, at times mystical -- always challenging -- "Angels in America" is the most extraordinarily imaginative piece of American theater to surface in years.

That such a serious, risky work made it to Broadway is a near miracle; that it is now touring and has come to Baltimore is proof that there are indeed angels in America.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards, Tony Kushner's two-part, seven-hour drama is at the Mechanic Theatre only through Sunday. Seven hours -- or three and a half, if you choose to see just one part -- may seem like a big time commitment during a holiday weekend. But Kushner's characters and situations reward you with a fascination that hangs on long after the final curtain, presenting a view of an America connected by the very things that factionalize us -- politics, religion and love.

As we meet them in "Part I: Millennium Approaches," the central characters consist of two fictional couples and one historical figure. They begin to intersect and defy convention almost immediately.

The first couple is homosexual. When the play opens, in 1985, Louis Ironson and Prior Walter have been together 4 1/2 years, but their union is shaken when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS and Louis -- politically liberal but spiritually weak -- can't "incorporate sickness" into his neo-Hegelian world view.

The second couple is Mormon. Joe Pitt is a clean-cut, rising young lawyer. But something is fundamentally wrong with his marriage. His wife, Harper, suspects the problem is that he is a repressed homosexual, and that suspicion has led her into the hallucinatory haze of Valium addiction.

The historical figure is Roy Cohn, the McCarthyite lawyer, seen here fighting the two biggest battles of his life -- disbarment and AIDS. To combat disbarment, he attempts to lure Joe Pitt into accepting a position of influence in the Justice Department. To combat AIDS, Cohn -- a deeply closeted homosexual -- simply denies it, insisting he has liver cancer.

Playwright Kushner overlaps these characters' stories, and Michael Mayer's direction reinforces the unlikely links between them by having the actors literally move in and out of each other's spaces. For example, a hospital scene in which Louis tells Prior he is leaving him overlaps an angry scene in the Pitts' apartment when Joe and Harper split up. At one point, when she can no longer face her husband or her emotions, Harper hides under Prior's hospital bed.

There is an obvious bond between Harper and Prior; both are deserted by the men they love. These men come together at the end of "Millennium," and their relationship continues in "Part II: Perestroika," which could not be reviewed here due to holiday deadlines. As those who are left behind, Kate Goehring's spacey Harper and Robert Sella's sweet-tempered Prior (who is visited by the angel of the title) earn their place as "Millennium's" most sympathetic characters.

Peter Birkenhead also shines as politics-spouting Louis, a man whose head is full of grand notions and whose heart is full of fear. On opening night, Joe was played by understudy John Leonard Thompson, who captured the character's troubled soul, but his rhythm wasn't always up to the speed of his fellow actors.

Speed isn't a problem for Jonathan Hadary's venom-spouting Roy Cohn; if anything, the actor starts out too loud, fast and furious. Though he's an improvement on over-the-top Ron Leibman, who created the role on Broadway, Hadary's Cohn is more credible -- and frightening -- in his quieter, more manipulative moments.

"Imagination can't create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions," Harper says to Prior in a scene in which they share a hallucination. If "Angels in America" isn't something new, it comes remarkably close. Without question, it is a work of immense vision.

'Millennium Approaches'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 1:30 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday; ("Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika," 7:30 p.m. tonight, tomorrow and Sunday)

Tickets: $27.50-$42.50 for each part

Call: (410) 6

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