Blood and thunder

For Dallas theatergoers, the wait is over. We get to find out what happens between Joe and Louis, Pryor and the Angel, Belize and Roy, and poor wandering, hallucinating, but strangely lucid Harper.

Dallas Theater Center stuck its neck out with a highly publicized, expensively promoted production of Tony Kushner's Millennium Approaches, the first part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. A naked man, albeit one covered with KS lesions, displayed himself for Dallas audiences in the same space the Dallas police slapped with a citation for operating an adult-oriented establishment outside the proper zone. (A naked man, quite pertinent to the plot of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, had displayed himself in front of one too many Dallas ticket buyers).

Millennium Approaches was greeted with consistently full houses, despite the fact that it tied Ronald Reagan's two-year term to the first flowering of the AIDS epidemic--not an appetizing prospect for the seniors and boomer professionals who make up the bulk of Dallas Theater Center's season subscribers. The two-year landslide of publicity for Tony Kushner's Angels in America certainly contributed to the success, but DTC earned word-of-mouth with a seamless production from director Richard Hamburger that looked simultaneously high-tech and low-budget. Richard Hamburger's killer sense of timing propelled the scrappy performances but didn't needlessly block them with theatrical effects.

Hamburger can't afford to be quite so shy with Perestroika, the second half of Kushner's "gay fantasia." This is the sequel to a play that concluded by anointing one of its main characters a heavenly prophet. The loquacious, inspired setup of Millennium Approaches was the pledge; Perestroika fulfills the promise with a delirious, rude, effect-heavy blast of melodrama and comedy.

Those audience members who saw DTC's April production of Millennium Approaches will enjoy a special sense of the saga's completion, because the cast is mostly identical. Kathleen Dennehy continues the Dallas theater season's best comic performance as Harper, the drug-addled wife who bumps hallucinations with a prophet; Robert Gomes and Joseph Fuqua consummate, then disassemble their relationship as sweet-natured Republican Joe and hothead Louis, respectively; Sheriden Thomas relaunches her irascible moral anchor as Mother Pitt, the Mormon matriarch who believes in angels...until she actually meets one. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, the recipient two weeks ago of a Leon Rabin Award from the City of Dallas' Office of Cultural Affairs, once again stings with every cluck of his tongue as the tough-love nurse Belize. And Sally Nystuen Vahle gets to be both eloquent and imperious in the role everyone has been waiting to hear from.

Two key roles have been assumed by different actors. Pryor, the drag queen saved from his AIDS deathbed for a heavensent mission, is now being played by Bill Youmans. The tirades of Roy Cohn, in some ways Kushner's most one-dimensional character (then again, by all accounts Cohn was remarkably uncomplicated in his monstrous drive to control others), are now spoken by Larry Block. In a preview column a couple of months ago, Dallas Morning News critic Lawson Taitte averred, based on the status of the cast at the time, that only one major actor would not be returning from DTC's Millennium Approaches, and that person, he declared, was "generally considered to be the weakest performer."

Now that it turns out two major performers have changed for DTC's Perestroika, I'm curious to know which one Taitte has declared an improvement. My vote would be Roy Cohn, who by Stephen Markel in April's show was played with much pomp but little circumstance; he never quite inhabited the action the way his fellow actors did, and sometimes flew off the handle so hard you didn't think he was going to re-enter orbit. Bill Youmans summons an effectively flustered Pryor, but I have fond memories of the puckish incarnation by Todd Weeks, DTC's prior Pryor.

Of course, Dallas Theater Center is hoping to woo more than just the large audiences that attended Millennium Approaches, and imagining myself as someone who's unfamiliar with the previous show or either of Kushner's scripts, I can honestly say a scant knowledge of all three won't prevent you from enjoying Perestroika. Besides the card DTC has placed in the lobby that summarizes Kushner's first play for ticket buyers, Perestroika as a play is a straightforward series of thrusts at the same themes as Millennium: personal duplicity, spiritual absence, and the primal lust for "more life" even in the throes of a disease that disfigures and debilitates. Ticket buyers who didn't attend Dallas Theater Center's spring Millennium Approaches, proceed to Perestroika; just arrive early enough to read the program, which will feel like a crash course in comparative religion and political theory. Or better yet, read the first play.

Which brings us to the inevitable disappointment that would sag any followup to a work as verbally explosive and intimate as Millennium Approaches. In a conversation I had last March with Tony Kushner, the playwright declared one of the hardest parts of writing Angels in America was dealing with the expectations (not to mention rampant speculations) the first play had raised in theater critics and columnists. He admitted that he sometimes felt that the burden of prophecy was on him, as well-meaning writers stoked the public's appetite for what the Angel's message would be.

In Dallas, as in New York and Los Angeles, the long wait between the first and second halves of Angels in America makes Perestroika's almost pragmatic resolution feel a bit anticlimactic. If Millennium Approaches displayed the playwright's righteous leftist anger as a kind of sensual convulsion, Perestroika carries you through that storm to a coda that's more philosophical, even commonsensical, than political. The charming final scene plays almost like a reunion for Kushner characters; that feels a bit like you're left to dangle over the churning volcano of ideas and emotions the playwright has brewed. As an ardent believer in the motivating power of art, Tony Kushner would perhaps say it's not his job to throw you in or rescue you. The volcano was there all along; he had only to describe it.

Angels in America: Perestroika runs through November 23. Call 747-5515.

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