Reviewed by George Basler
While there are some dissenters, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America generally has been considered a masterwork of American drama ever since it opened on Broadway in the 1990s.
The massive, seven-hour play — so big that it’s broken into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”– cleaned up with Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize when it first opened and was turned into a prestigious television mini-series.
Still the play is a daunting undertaking as it mixes realistic scenes with abstract hallucinations as the characters cope with the AIDS crisis and political atmosphere of the 1980s.
So it took some gumption for the Dickinson Community Players, made up entirely of Binghamton University students, to tackle the play this weekend.
They have nothing to be ashamed of.
Never having seen Angels before, I really can’t compare it to other productions, but the BU students more than held their own in presenting Kushner’s sprawling, dense play. The large cast was first-rate.
That being said, the play is a tall order. The BU students are only performing the first part of the play, “Millennium Approaches.” Even so, this part is more than three hours long and requires the audience to move from realism to surrealism and back again.
Maybe this is heresy but, despite the students’ best efforts, “Millennium Approaches” left me cold in a lot of ways. While the realistic scenes gripped me emotionally, I found my mind wandering during some of the more overwrought hallucinatory sequences and when Kushner veered into the realm of political diatribe.
And, despite the playwright’s attempt to deal with larger themes, the play can seem a bit dated. Attitudes toward homosexuality have changed since the play opened, and continue to change. AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it was in the 1980s.
On the other hand, the issues raised of personal responsibility and the corrosive impact of power remain relevant.
One of the play’s stories focuses on the character Prior Walter, who is battling the onset of AIDS as his lover, Louis, abandons him. Jared Adam Gordon is excellent in portraying Prior’s growing suffering and fear as well as his struggle to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of the rampaging virus. Matthew Long also gives a strong performance as he conveys Louis’ self-loathing and emotional conflicts as he abandons Prior.
A second story focuses on Joe, a closeted Republican lawyer and Mormon, coping with his sexuality and a pill-popping wife. Kevin Gleeson’s nuanced portrayal of Joe’s confusion, loneliness and growing self-awareness is one of show’s highlights. Nina Kozak is equally fine as Joe’s wife, who is living through a hell of her own.
The third story delves into the life of Roy Cohn, a real person who gained notoriety as a sidekick to Joe McCarthy during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and later was a powerful New York City attorney. A closeted, self-loathing homosexual, Cohn is dying of AIDS in the play. Jared Goodman is suitably venomous as the character who seems to have long ago abandoned any sense of human decency.
A major problem, at least for me, is that the three-act “Millennium Approaches” reaches its emotional high point at the end of Act II when, in interlocking scenes, Louis abandons Prior, leaving him screaming on the floor, and Joe leaves his wife. It is powerful theater.
Act III, by contrast, was a letdown, except when the venomous Mr. Cohn was on the stage. Especially deflating was a long, boring discussion between Louis and Belize, a drag queen (played well by Caleb Valentin) that began the act.
Also, the layout of Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center Multipurpose Room, where the play was performed, left a lot to be desired. The layout meant the actors on one side of the stage sometimes had their backs to the audience on the other side. For the most part, though, director Tori Scalzo did a fine job in keeping the multiple scenes flowing smoothly.
All in all, the BU students deserve credit for tackling a play that is so multi-faceted and demanding.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches will be performed again at 8 p.m. today (Dec. 7) and at 2 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 8) in the Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center Multipurpose Room on the Binghamton University campus in Vestal. Tickets are $3 at the door.