Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

A production that needs a bit more touching up: James Napoleon Stone, Megan Dowd

For a young and hungry company like Theater Coup D'etat, tackling even half of Angels in America is a tremendous challenge. Tony Kushner's epic exploration of gay identity and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s earns its numerous accolades with a penetrating, complex script that merges reality and fantasy. The first part, Millennium Approaches, provides a major workout for the company members, who need to dance to all the places — personal, political, and philosophical — that Kushner beckons them.

Some of them struggle mightily with the material, making for an uneven evening. The production is still intriguing, but that often comes from Kushner's own heavy lifting with the material.

In its entirely, Angels in America is a sweeping seven-hour, six-act experience that follows the lives of several gay characters, and the people in their immediate circle, against the backdrop of AIDS in New York City. Kushner cuts across social and political lines, introducing us to an out gay couple, a severely closeted Mormon, and Roy Cohn, the bulldog Republican attorney who hid his sexual orientation — and that he had AIDS — during his lifetime.

The characters are also slowly drawn into a common web. Louis, the frightened boyfriend of ill Prior, meets the closeted Joe, and a relationship slowly starts to bud. Joe is an acolyte of Cohn, who wants to control Joe partly for political reasons and likely for the hidden attraction he has for the man. At home, Joe's wife, Harper, struggles with depression and addiction, even crossing over into one of Prior's dreams. Other characters, historical and fantastical, wander in and out of the story. All the while, Prior is haunted by a mysterious voice promising that she is about to arrive ahead of the millennium.

Oh, but Kushner lays traps for unwary actors, such as a scene near the beginning of Act Three, when Louis goes off on a long rant about the meaning of race and politics in America, while Belize (an ex-drag queen, nurse, and best friend to Prior) listens, trying to get words in edgewise before finally exploding with righteous anger. It's a scene that can be funny and penetrating, but it can also descend into a shrill encounter that brings the proceedings to a halt.

While Brandon Caviness is otherwise solid as Louis, the moments when the character philosophizes — he is someone who loves to hear his own voice, so it happens quite a bit — seem to stump him. So when we get to the scene with Belize, it just turns into a tiresome screed that seems to stretch to infinity.

Meanwhile, Peter Beard has chosen to play closeted Mormon Joe so tightly wound that it is hard for any emotions to get out. I understand that the character is supposed to be in crisis, but there's no indication of what anyone would find attractive in the piece of plywood performing onstage. Beard is much better in a smaller role as one of Prior's ancestors, along for the death ride. As Harper, Joe's depressed, Valium-popping wife, Megan Dowd avoids these pitfalls, bringing life to the philosophical musings of the playwright and the intense loneliness of her character. She only comes alive when lost within her own world, and Dowd switches easily between the facets of the character.

Steven Flamm also gives a strong performance as Roy Cohn, a character that doesn't come with nearly as many facets. Flamm gives us a man who is loud, profane, and powerful — and supremely proud and smug about that. He's conscious of his public facade, denying that he has AIDS even as he gets sicker and sicker, until, at the end, he becomes haunted by the specter of Ethel Rosenberg.

That particular relationship comes into sharp focus in Perestroika, the second half of Angels in America. In fact, though Millennium Approaches reaches an end, each of the characters are midway through their respective journeys, and some, like Rosenberg and Joe's mother, Hannah (both well played in limited time here by Meri Golden), make their entrances late in the game, hinting at the turns the story is about to take in the second half.

Director Justin M. Krikeberg and the company have done a tremendous amount of work in bringing the show to the stage, and I think this is a production that will improve over the course of its month-long run. The actors have found most of the pieces; they just need time to completely put them together.

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