The most important theatre event of this decade, Tony Kushner's epic masterpiece Angels in America, has arrived in Phoenix. It is the largest and deepest play since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit Broadway in 1962, and joins A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman and A Long Day's Journey Into Night in the Valhalla of American drama.

Angels, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," is comprised of two interlocking plays that together run more than seven hours. Part one, Millennium Approaches, won the Tony Award for Best Play of 1993 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Part two, Perestroika, won the Tony Award for Best Play of 1994.

Originally funded by the National Endowment for the Arts as a workshop project of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Angels received its first full production at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. The road-company version opened in Tucson last week. Together these plays explode across the stage with the breathtaking splendor of a comet blazing a path of truth in its wake.

What Kushner has set out to do (and, incredibly, has accomplished) is to examine the disintegration of America's moral structure in the last 15 years of the 20th century, using the lens of AIDS to dramatize the contradictions, paradoxes and dilemmas we face in our dark trip toward the future.

Millennium's three acts introduce us to the principal characters, whom we will follow through four tumultuous months from October 1985 to February 1986.

The play begins with a grizzled Hassidic rabbi delivering a eulogy over a plain wooden coffin. The rabbi confesses that he did not know the woman personally, but that he knows her from her role in the larger canvas of the immigrant drama. He exhorts his audience, "Pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture."

This is where we have failed, Kushner implies. We are spiraling outward because we have lost our center. "There is no spiritual past in America. There are no angels in America."

As the rabbi wheels the coffin offstage, we are transported to the Manhattan office of that cancerous embodiment of conservative hypocrisy, Roy Cohn. Then at the height of his insidious influence in Washington, D.C., a colleague to President Reagan and, more important, to Nancy, Cohn is soliciting a handsome young man named Joe Pitt. Cohn elicits from Joe that he is a Mormon. "Delectable!" exclaims Cohn.

A beautiful young woman appears deep in her armchair. She is Harper, Joe's wife. Their marriage is in crisis because Joe's inability to confront his ambiguous sexuality has driven Harper to Valium. Harper spends her time hallucinating to escape from an isolation that may be far more familiar to many women today than we have imagined.

Next we meet Louis, a young Jewish man whose grandmother was the subject of the rabbi's eulogy. His lover is a wispy Wasp named Prior Walter, who reveals his lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma, "the wine dark kiss of the Angel of Death" that signals the onset of AIDS. Seeing the terror in Louis' reaction, Prior tells him simply, "I'm going to die. I can't think of a way to spare you."

At the federal courthouse where he works, Joe encounters Louis weeping uncontrollably in the men's room. Faced with Prior's impending deterioration, Louis can't incorporate sickness into "how things are supposed to be."

This is the central concern that Kushner has dramatized so painfully, and with such humor. He takes the American dream to task for raising our hopes to a level that our contemporary world cannot sustain.

Paralyzed with dread, Louis finally asks Prior, "If I walked out on you, would you hate me forever?" Prior looks at him with compassion, and simply answers, "Yes."

Stepping beyond the commonplace reality that is the canvas of the conventional play, Kushner introduces Prior to Harper. They meet on the shared terrain of fantasy, created through the desperation of loneliness. Together they celebrate that their affliction brings them to "the threshold of revelation."

Cohn delivers a blistering diatribe on homosexuality, equating it with powerlessness. He proclaims that he is a heterosexual who sleeps with men. He could not have AIDS. It must be liver cancer. In the hospital we meet Belize, a black male nurse who is an "ex-drag queen." Friend to Prior and Louis, Belize becomes the nurse to Roy Cohn when he is hospitalized.

Interspersed are figures whose reality is constantly in question. Ethel Rosenberg occupies a front-row seat to witness the agonizingly slow demise of her executioner, Roy Cohn. Ancestral Walters from centuries prior to our present Prior appear to accompany him to eternity, the first a sailing captain from ancient Celtic times, the second a fop from the Restoration era.

Most important is the thundering Angel whose physical manifestation finally materializes, and whose stuttering message from heaven becomes clear only in the second play.

This unlikely menagerie of characters gives Kushner the raw material for his searing insights into our national malady, of which the terminal prognosis of AIDS is a potent symbol.

A cast of only eight actors portrays 20 characters in the first play alone, and each cameo appearance represents the miraculous transformations possible in the art of acting. From rabbi to hallucinogenic travel agent, from an Eskimo in the Arctic to a homeless psychotic in Central Park, the characters interweave in a spectacular display of theatrical sleight of hand.

The production of Millennium is superior to either the chaotic production in Los Angeles or the overproduced spectacle of Broadway. Michael Mayer has directed it here with such imagination and fluidity that it literally glides by like a whirl on the ballroom floor. The sets, costumes and lighting, while still spectacular, are stunningly simple. Especially memorable is the beautiful realization of the scene in the Arctic, achieved with a billowing white silk ground cloth.

As for the cast members, they are in many respects superior to their New York predecessors. In the grotesque role of Roy Cohn, Jonathan Hadary is so painfully right that his leathery face and rasping voice will be burned into your memory as emblems of human vitriol.

As his protg, Rick Holmes is handsome, sensitive and innocent in his agonizing struggle with his sexuality. Sarah Underwood is strong, vulnerable and pathetic as his tortured wife Harper, and she delivers some of the most beautiful lines in the piece with shimmering resonance.

Carolyn Swift is appropriately awesome as the Angel, although she is sometimes hard to understand in her relentless rages, perhaps partly because of overamplification. Reg Flowers is a fabulous Belize, funny and deep, strong and sympathetic.

Pamela Burrell excels in a variety of roles, memorable as the rabbi, Ethel Rosenberg and especially as Joe's Mormon mother.

Peter Birkenhead is extremely funny as Louis, and, as the plays deepen, he plumbs the tragic depths, as well. Robert Sella created the part of Prior at the Juilliard School, long before the play's Broadway production, but relinquished the role to the Tony Award-winning Stephen Spinella. Sella is himself quite marvelous as Prior, somewhat more sturdy than the emaciated Spinella, but inwardly rich and infinitely moving.

The production of Perestroika is completely redesigned, but not always to its advantage. The campy marquee featuring A Star Is Born is somewhat too explicit as a universal vision of heaven.

The worst aspect of the physical production is the clumsy flying of the Angel. In the Los Angeles production, she flew in horizontally from upstage, hovering over Prior's bed with celestial authority. Here, as on Broadway, she is plunked down vertically, dangling on visible wires, looking more appropriate to the top of a Christmas tree than as a celestial messenger.

Kushner's vision of America is a peculiar one, but so was that of Tennessee Williams. The great artist sees beyond the world of rationality. Kushner is such an artist. Much of what he says is profound. Some of it is beautifully expressed. Most of it is funny. (He has great fun sticking it to the Republicans, religions and closeted queers.) And all of it is strikingly original. Stand and cheer a unique new voice in the American theatre.


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