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Theater Review: "Angels in America"

(c) Variety

October 31, 1994

By Dennis Harvey

An American Conservatory Theater presentation of a play in two evening-length parts by Tony Kushner. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey.

With: Lise Bruneau, Julia Gibson, Steven Culp, Garret Dillahunt, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, Ben Shenkman, Gregory Wallace, Peter Zapp.

"Heaven is a place much like San Francisco," the angel informs us in Tony Kushner's epic. The compliment is now being returned, as local auds have broken non-profit sales records for the show that's come home at last -- three years after its work-in-progress bow at the commissioning Eureka Theater.

Many things have changed since then. The Eureka, hobbled by debt, basically shut down soon after "Angels"' closed. Countless rewrites en route to Broadway have wrought a "Perestroika" 1991 viewers would scarcely recognize. And the two-part "gay fantasia on national themes" has since become the most acclaimed drama of recent years.

The biggest shock for longtime fans, however, may be Mark Wing-Davey's ACT production. The Brit director's interp was hotly anticipated, given the brilliance of his sole prior local effort (Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest" at Berkeley Rep).

Cluttered to the gills with technical flash and jarring textures, this "Angels" is riskier, more tuned to the text's phantasmagorical side than any U.S. staging to date. It's also the most erratic of the lot. While Wing-Davey heats "Millennium Approaches" to boiling point, his gonzo tactics nearly overwhelm "Perestroika," whose more problematic sprawl requires clearer focus.

Treating the whole as a kind of anti-illusionist Brechtian graffito, the director throws action all over the Marines Memorial stage. Kate Edmunds' set design is dominated by rolling scaffold bridges and graph-patterned backdrops. Their severity suggests a societal infrastructure stripped bare. Huge curtains (one a rather too-obvious American flag), one hydraulic ramp, fully exposed flying rig for the "Angel" (Lise Bruneau), fog, film projection, etc. add to the sensory overload. Christopher Akerlind's lighting and James LeBrecht's sound design likewise push the line between inspiration and excess. Clever costuming (Catherine Zuber) hits the mark more consistently.

There are numerous startling effects, natch. And Kushner's boundless seriocomic insights generally come through. "Millennium" has some sputtery acting rhythms and misfired sequences. But this mid-'80s NYC windup for AIDS-diagnosed WASP queen Prior (Garret Dillahunt), his skittish Jewish lover Louis (Ben Shenkman), rising Mormon-Republican lawyer Joe (Steven Culp), Valium-addled wife Harper (Julia Gibson) and real-life slimeball Roy Cohn (Peter Zapp) conveys the sense that "history is about to crack wide open" with hurricane intensity.

ACT's eight leading actors (supplemented by visible, costumed stagehands) hit apt broad notes in many multicast bit parts. As the errant spouses, Shenkman and Culp are excellent. Gregory Wallace steals scene after scene as Prior's dishy nurse pal Belize. Cristine McMurdo-Wallis limns Joe's mother Hannah (and ghostly Ethel Rosenberg) with stern authority, while Bruneau does OK by the difficult role of the Angel.

As Kushner's chosen visionaries, however, both Gibson and Dillahunt sport droning speech mannerisms that rob their characterizations of some needed range. And Zapp's Cohn lacks gargoyle grandeur. Barking 'n' quipping, his rages suggest less a complex portrait of evil than an especially hostile Don Rickles.

This staging may be far from definitive, but its daring does reveal fresh facets of a text that will be seeing many future interpreters. Hometown reviews have been excited, with qualifications. Still, mixed vibes shouldn't impede ACT's coup at the B.O., where skedded four-month run (since extended) was largely sold out before opening.

Artistic director: Carey Perloff. Marines Memorial Theater; 640 seats, $45 top each part. Casting: Ellen Novack & Meryl Lind Shaw. Opened October 12 & 19, 1994. Running time: 3 HOURS, 35 MIN. (Part 1), 4 HOURS, 5 MIN. (Part II). Reviewed Oct. 22 & 23

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