SPP's 'Angels' is heavier on emotion than political commentary, but it still packs a punch
Not the least extraordinary aspect of the San Pedro Playhouse's mounting of Angels in America is its timing: Fresh off of its sweep of the 2004 Emmys, the Pulitzer-prize winning Angels lands between (get this) Footloose and Beauty and the Beast, each play as unabashedly middlebrow as you can get. There's nothing middlebrow about Angels, however. Tony Kushner's wildly ambitious fantasia on homosexuality, politics, and disease includes a scathing indictment of Reagan-era (and now, alas, Bush-era) arrogance and cultural imperialism as well as a more general commentary on the place of religion in the formation of the American psyche. Running over two plays and six hours, Angels is a massive undertaking, and the Playhouse should be saluted for performing the entire work in a rotating schedule. Frank Latson's production showcases many of the script's strengths, and deservedly drew a standing ovation for opening night of part one, Millennium Approaches. The language may be cosmic, but the characters are not; at base, this is a highly moving play about people attempting to make sense of America during the onset and onslaught of AIDS.
In general, the play follows the dissolution of two couples - one gay, one putatively straight - as they struggle through a second Republican term and inadvertently bump shoulders with Roy Cohn, the closeted New York attorney and powerbroker who embodies the soulless Zeitgeist of Reagan's 1985 America. As envisioned by Kushner, the only way to portray the absurdity of the '80s is through absurdity: Characters frequently hallucinate events and figures from their past, and, in one of the more amusing scenes of the first act, they are free to wander into each other's hallucinations.
As the diabolical Roy Cohn, Allan Ross seems miscast or perhaps misdirected: He lacks the power-hungry megalomania of Kushner's anti-hero and comes across instead as avuncular, less threatening than pathetic. The essence of the character is an insatiable, even terrifying, appetite for power and intimidation in the face of any type of social niceties. Ross' opening scene, in which he puts seemingly half of New York on telephone hold, should show this side of Cohn: the octopus in his lair. Instead, the scene is played more broadly as a push-button comedy routine, eliciting chuckles instead of disgust as Cohn wraps a tentacle around his latest victim, Pitt.
For Cohn, a homosexual is somebody nobody knows, and who knows nobody, a being without power or substance or voice. In Cohn's twisted worldview, AIDS is the outward manifestation of inconsequentiality, the mark of Cain that separates the politically powerful from the dead and the might-as-well-be-dead. Cohn is powerful, therefore not gay; but Cohn has AIDS and there's the rub. He will die under the weight of that hopeless contradiction. Under Latson's direction, the political edge of the play is muted, while the emotional is heightened. While this pays great dividends in some scenes (the scream-fest break-up of Harper/Joe/Louis/Prior is simply terrific), it can do so at the cost of real bite.
Angels in America is marvelous, challenging theater, but on opening night not all audience members rose to the challenge (there were noticeably more empty seats after the first intermission; nothing clears a San Antonio theater faster than two homos in their skivvies). So the only way to fill those seats is for you, gentle Current reader, to do your geo-socio-political duty and support a San Antonio play that finally recognizes theater as a medium for criticism and ideas, rather than as taffy for the synapses. Otherwise, we can be sure that the next angels to touch down in Texas will land in Austin instead. •
The Current will run a review of part two, Angels in America: Perestroika, in the October 14-20 issue.