Accolades and Shortcomings

Talented actors can't completely save Studio Connections' 'Angels in America'

Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a very important play. It is not, however, a very good play.

Angels in America follows the lives of two couples as their paths intersect with the AIDS crisis in New York City in the mid-'80s. When Prior Walter confesses to his partner, Louis Ironson, that he has been diagnosed with AIDS, Louis is unable to handle the stress and fear, and he abandons Prior.

Parallel to that, a neurotic Mormon lawyer, Joe Pitt, is forced by his Valium-addicted wife, Harper, to confront the reality of his own closeted homosexuality.

This central quartet is surrounded by a menagerie of colorful characters, from the real-life Roy Cohn (the ultra-conservative lawyer) and Ethel Rosenberg's ghost, to an imaginary travel agent and an ex-drag-queen nurse who cares for Prior in the hospital.

When it premiered in the early 1990s, Kushner's two-part, six-hour magnum opus, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, won not only the Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize; it also won countless admirers. Nuanced, human portrayals of gay characters were uncommon in mainstream media, and Angels in America helped to usher issues of sexual orientation and the AIDS crisis into the mainstream conversation.

For these reasons, it is a play of great value and is well-deserving of its honors. But the accolades cloud the play's shortcomings.

For one thing, Kushner's dialogue is overwritten. This is a problem it shares with the television miniseries: With the luxury of so much time (six hours!), there is little pressure to trim fatty dialogue or make sure that dramatic beats aren't repeated from scene to scene.

Characters are prone to holding up the action while they dwell on tangential material. An aging rabbi's funeral sermon falls into this trap, as does Cohn's series of furious phone calls to procure tickets to the musical Cats.

Also, while Kushner cleverly intertwines his characters' lives, the threads never seem to unite into a satisfying whole. In spite of many richly emotional moments, the momentum starts and stops with each scene, as if the storylines were merely adjacent rather than interrelated.

That said, the da Vinci Players, the resident theater company at Studio Connections, a nonprofit youth-arts school, has mounted a production of Angels in America's first half, Millennium Approaches, that celebrates the spirit of the play and builds on many of its strengths. Still, it's not able to overcome the work's weaknesses.

The cast is clearly talented, and audience members might be wise to bring a tissue or two.

David James Olsen gives a standout performance as Prior. He disappears into his role with an honesty and an emotional vulnerability that are captivating, especially in the quiet moments when Prior is alone, facing the reality of his illness. But too often, in confrontational scenes, Olsen works himself into a fevered pitch and remains there, rather than continuing to vary his performance.

He shares a warm chemistry with Jay C. Cotner as his partner, Louis. Cotner works comfortably with both Louis' tender and strident sides, but has difficulty combining them into a single character. He is able to make us care for and empathize with a person whose actions are often despicable.

Steve Wood and Jessica Lea Risco are slightly less successful in their portrayal of Joe and Harper Pitt. They do make the characters their own, but not always in the best ways.

Wood is at his best when portraying Joe as a gay man struggling with his sexual identity. His drunken phone call to his conservative mother, confessing his homosexuality, is one of the highlights of the evening. However, his performance early in the play—when Joe is trying to pass as straight—is unconvincing. The moment when Joe shares a platonic kiss with his wife comes across as camp, and it telegraphs what's to come rather than letting it unfold.

Risco's Harper is pleasant and bubbly, and brings much-needed light to a play that's often dark. But the pain, depression and religious guilt that underlie Harper's addiction to pills never come across as much more than befuddlement or childish petulance.

On the other hand, David Zinke, as Cohn, embodies his character to the core. After the Cats-tickets scene, in which he's given much to say with little purpose, he emerges as a terrifying, foul-mouthed, scene-stealing bully, able to walk all over anyone who stands in his way. He's electrifying.

I will lay the fact that such a talented cast is unable to provide consistently strong performances at the feet of director Bill C. Fikaris.

This play is clearly a labor of love for Fikaris, and he deserves credit for guiding the production's many successes. But beyond not evoking consistent performances, Fikaris has created additional problems with his artistic choices.

First is his poorly integrated use of projections. During a scene in which Prior is alone in his hospital room, animated images of flames and a book are projected against the back wall. This is meant to be a vision, either divine or hallucinatory, but the effect is alienating and divorced from the human drama on stage.

More problematic are the blackout transitions between the many short scenes in this-three hour play. The blackouts allow time for the wooden-block set to be shifted, but they bog down the play. This is not the fault of a slim budget—theater requires nothing more than an actor and an audience. The technique appears to be the result of Fikaris trying to mimic the style of a commercial production, rather than approaching the work with a more suitable vision.

Much like the play itself, this production is carried by its strengths. It is a memorial to those who have suffered at the hands of disease, fear and bigotry, and an anthem of love, compassion and survival.

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