Necessary angels

Tony Kushner's Angels in America finds meaning in epic suffering

The realists of this world have the romantics by the balls, but the romantics refuse to cry uncle.

Instead, they produce epics like War and Peace, Moby Dick, or Angels in America--works which suggest there is some kind of overarching moral or spiritual purpose to the universe, even though the facts clearly argue otherwise.

What redeeming purpose, after all, could the litany of disasters that have afflicted mankind (AIDS being just one example) possibly serve? The AIDS virus in particular, which strikes young and old, black and white, good and bad, would seem to be all the evidence of a random, morally indifferent universe anyone could need. But the romantics in us can't accept the facts that stare us in the face, and like Pangloss in Candide, keep insisting that "all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds."

Angels in America has connected with a wide audience largely because it appeals to the romantic notions most people still harbor--especially in regard to a portentous date or historical event, or in the face of death. The fact that we are approaching a millennium, or that a loved one is dying, must, we seek to convince ourselves, have some larger meaning.

The play begins with a rabbi whose funeral oration for a recently deceased immigrant Jew suggests that a life of labor, sorrow, and loneliness was, ultimately, redemptive. It rejects capitalism for the most romantic economic system of them all: socialism. It champions truth over deception, sacrifice over self-interest, order over nihilism. It even affirms, like a child saying his prayers, that Someone or Something is watching over us and has a plan for us.

In fact, if you throw out the elements of gay sex and leftism, you have a play that the family-values crowd could take to heart. That's why it's unfortunate that the Dallas Theater Center has felt compelled to so strenuously warn people about the content of this play. Though there is a little SAP (simulated anal pokey) and a brief bit of nudity, sex is not a subject that is likely to derail a play in Dallas--after all, you can't throw a brick in this town without hitting a tittie joint.

A far bigger bar to local audiences is the play's socialist lean, the general attitude toward the gay left in Big D being, "Ya'll homosexuals can engage in any kind of pre-versions you want, but keep your cotton-pickin' manicured fingers off our money!"

Another surprising thing about Angels in America is that its form, as well as its morals, is traditional rather than avant-garde. The play owes more to Wilde or Shaw than it does to Beckett or any of the current crop of surrealist American playwrights. Audiences don't need to fear they won't see a story. They will--with characters who actually speak comprehensibly about ideas worth discussing.

In this sense, the play mirrors Shaw, whose characters often are mouthpieces for differing social or political viewpoints, but who are generally charming people to spend some time with for all of that. Those who love Wildean wordplay, inverted expectations, and double entendre will warm to Angels immediately, as it takes bitchy gay humor to new heights. Playwright Tony Kushner has stated that he is, first of all, an entertainer, and God bless him for that.

The last major surprise is the angel itself. This is not one of your wimpy, nurturing, Michael Landon-goody-two-shoes kind of angel, Allah be praised. Instead, it's more a C.S. Lewis-style superbeing--a "shake you, break you, gonna remake you" kind of angel.

While the play itself (to its credit) works against expectations, the DTC's production of it does not. Artistic director Richard Hamburger and Tony Award-winning set designer Ming Cho Lee live up to the high standards they have set for themselves. Barring something unforeseen on the horizon, this is the single most compelling theatrical production a Dallas audience is likely to see this year.

The design of the play combines simplicity with spectacle. Lee mixes an ethereal backdrop of blue sky that reaches to the firmament and encloses the theater in one communal space, with the prosaic details of homes, offices, hospitals, and eating places. The staging is clean, uncluttered, and confident, underlining the fact that this is a play that has something to say and wants to be clear and direct about saying it.

The cast consists mostly of out-of-town actors, including Todd Weeks in the pivotal role of Prior Walter, one of two characters in the play with AIDS. Walter, we slowly glean, has been selected by a higher power as a kind of emissary or lightning rod for the coming millennial epiphany. Though Weeks performed the role for the touring production of Angels in America, he certainly hasn't lost his zest for it. The flamboyantly gay man has become something of a stock figure, but Weeks makes the character seem fresh again. He's fabulous.

The more interesting figure, though, is Prior Walter's lover, Louis. Unable to endure the ugliness of his friend's disease, Louis is alternately smarmy and charming, an equivocating, hyperanalytical Hamlet type unable to commit to a definite course of action and increasingly consumed by self-loathing. Joseph Fuqua brings a nice ironic sensibility to the role, and is particularly effective mouthing Louis' protean political opinions.

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