By Bill Hirschman
The Andrews Living Arts Studio deserves credit for attempting the epic masterpiece Angels In America, Part 1: Millenium Approaches. Unfortunately, the laudable desire to conquer mountains doesn’t protect you from falling into crevasses.
And here’s the really weird phenomenon: While the production is barely mediocre with flashes of competency, somehow the poetry, the resonances, the genius of Tony Kushner’s script came through more clearly than in any of four earlier productions I’ve seen.
Maybe it’s because director Robert D. Nation has paced this so leisurely that the dialogue, usually delivered rapid-fire, flows by slowly enough to process. Or maybe it’s because each past encounter has added to my accrued understanding of this episodic, disjointed pinball game bouncing between reality and fantasyland.
It certainly isn’t because most of the 11-member cast has imbued line readings with much passion, variety or verisimilitude. Nation and company do bring out numerous laughs in the script. But only Larry Buzzeo as the cowardly lover Louis, Larry Brooks as the AIDS-afflicted Prior Walter, Finley Polynice as the flamboyant nurse Belize and Josh Harding in various roles strafe by with unassailably heartfelt but barely passable performances – and even then not consistently. Worse, they are never affecting, let alone transporting.
Presumably, there is more than one way to portray the villainous lawyer Roy Cohn. But he’s written as a whirlwind — detestable and terrifying in his unholy combination of anger, power and corruption. Actor Gilbert Harris Lenchus never gets anywhere near that until the very end of the play. On the other hand, you can always hear him, which isn’t true of all the actors even though they are a few feet from any audience member.
For those who haven’t seen it before, Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is drama and comedy stirred into a surreal soup. It deals with two couples in 1985 at the height of the Reagan Era. Prior is a decorator withering under the fresh horror of AIDS and Louis is his lover who runs away because he can’t cope with his fear. Across town, straight arrow lawyer Joe (Brian McCormack) is trying to cope with the fraying sanity of his valium-addicted wife Harper (Elizabeth Aspen) while he struggles with the realization that he is gay. Joe is also being seduced from the ethical path by the charismatic Cohn. Laid over the entire play is an increasingly bizarre procession of hallucinations and visions that herald the imminent end of the world as we know it, hopefully to give way to a better future. Yet, this production of this epic masterpiece never soars as it is capable of doing.
The theater is a tiny black box in Fort Lauderdale that was once a mechanic’s garage, a logistical fact that the resourceful technical staff used to ingenious effect for the appearance of the angel at the finale – a surprise that has to do with a garage door.
But with virtually no budget, the troupe is hard-pressed to create Kushner’s fantasia with a handful of furniture pieces, a few lights and a fog machine. Yet, the equally challenged New Theater in Coral Gables staged a Carbonell-winning production under director Rafael de Acha in a miniscule storefront in 1997.
Nation has kept the three-act play to well about 2 ½ hours by cutting the text. For instance, Harper’s imaginary excursion to Antarctica has disappeared and Ethel Rosenberg’s confrontation with Cohn is reduced to him alone yelling a few lines to an unseen and silent hallucination.
And yet, go figure, I’ve never appreciated so fully the resonating metaphor and deft imagery in Kushner’s language or his brilliant set up of a world slowly cracking apart in anticipation of a cosmic rebirth. That near-poetry is what truly gives Angels its heft and gravitas and reputation. It’s certainly not Kushner’s weird, episodic plot that provides no contextual explanation whatsoever for a play that encompasses Mormons and The Black Plague.
Andrews and Nation should be commended for their artistic taste and ambition: Angels and its last show Equus are challenging masterpieces. But ALA has been unable to cast the shows with actors whose skill levels are equal to the vision. We’ll keep pulling for them.
Angels In America, Part 1: Millenium Approaches plays through Sept. 4 at Andrews Living Arts Studio, 23 NW 5th St. Ft. Lauderdale . Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $24.95-$29.95. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.andrewslivingarts.com