Angel’s in the details
Blue Room’s Angels in America is spotty, but satisfying
The me-first ‘80s provide the setting for the Blue Room Theatre’s latest production, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, but Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play dives well below the neon-hued tip of the eMpTyV-generation iceberg.
Millennium Approaches is the first of two halves (which won successive Tonys for Best Play) of Kushner’s epic meditation on the changes bubbling beneath the surface during the Reagan years. Through the lives of drag queens, Jews, WASPs, Mormons and, of course, angels, Angels in America confronts issues of religion, race, national and individual identity, and the AIDS epidemic.
The Blue Room opens Part One with J.J. Hunt as a rabbi (the first of her five characters) speaking at a funeral. The set is sparse and unchanging, with a wooden bed (or casket, in this scene), a table with chairs and a bench. There’s a large opaque window in front of a sky painted on the back wall, and a small screen displaying images of changing locales (New York skyline, kitchen, lawyer’s office, etc.).
The rabbi laments the passing of another from the old world—"Last of the Mohicans,” she jokes—setting up the premise that America is passing into a new era, one in which “all the old will be dead.” With that, the central question of the play is foreshadowed: In this America, where disparate cultures and new ideals are finding their way, are there any angels?
Next, we’re introduced to two couples: Prior Walter and Louis, a gay New York couple played by David Cline and Jesse Mills, respectively; and Joe and Harper Pitt (Erik Pedersen and Stacy Lyon), a Mormon husband and wife from Utah. The stories are told side by side, as scenes, sets and characters overlap: In couple one, Prior is dying from AIDS and Louis abandons him. In couple two, Harper sits alone in a New York apartment, addicted to Valium and going mad as Joe represses his homosexuality in the face of faith and clerking for McCarthy-era prosecutor Roy Cohn (played with guts and flair by Jerry Miller). Prior hears angels, Louis is in existential crisis, Harper hallucinates that she’s in Antarctica, Joe is tortured by his desires, and America the beautiful struggles to keep it all together. It’s big stuff.
How does the Blue Room handle all of this? Surprisingly, a little unevenly. To be fair, the constant interweaving of characters and scenes is more complex than the average play, and is surely immensely challenging. But this is actually where this production excels.
Director Joe Hilsee, stage manager Delovely Delisa and the cast do an exceptional job with the transitions and staging. The company keeps a dizzying and emotionally charged pace that supports and propels the narrative, helping overcome a few flat characterizations and some dialogue miscues. (Not to dwell on it, but the dialogue of Devin Lucero’s Belize was almost inaudible. The scene between Belize and Louis nearly brings the play to a halt, and unless his projection is improved, I fear for the flow of the play.)
However, most of the actors (Hunt’s stable of five stock characters, Mills’ tortured Louis) do a wonderful job with their roles. Pedersen was especially effective as a Mormon-with-a-secret, his lanky slouch and puppy-dog eyes giving an impression that he’s not entirely confident with his identity. So, when what’s buried inside comes out, the volume of his explosion is appropriately surprising, and impressive.
Miller is a monster, though. I actually liked his Roy Cohn better than Al Pacino’s Emmy-winning performance in the HBO miniseries. The burning in Miller’s eyes had the necessary megalomaniacal roar for a bastard like Cohn, but he also had the sly, almost perverted-looking glint of a man who is really good at playing games.
My favorite scene is the confrontation between Cohn and Joe, when the young clerk refuses his mentor’s offer for advancement. Miller pulls his underling close by the neck, like he is going to either kill him or kiss him. The old generation is holding on tight, fearing that his grip on life is about to loosen, and fearing that the new generation isn’t going to be carrying his torch.