Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Steve Tague
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
I remember watching Philadelphia shortly after its release on home video in 1994. I would've been just into my teen years and I recall being excited about being able to watch this Academy Award-nominated film because it was rated PG-13 (as R-rated dramas weren't necessarily a regular occurrence still at that age). I'm thinking that this was probably my first exposure to anything remotely related to homosexuality and I found myself quite moved by the plight of Tom Hanks' character.
As I sat and watched the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Player's first production of their 2014-15 season Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, I had to wonder whether it would've impacted me in a similar way as Philadelphia had I seen in upon its first presentation in the early 1990s...because as it stands now, Angels in America feels like a not-too-successful snapshot of the initial impact of AIDS. Maybe Philadelphia doesn't work now either...but Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play feels like a piece that won that coveted award simply because its judges felt like they needed to dole it out to something that "felt" important two decades ago. Don't misunderstand -- I'm sure this play made an impact simply due to its desire to bring to the masses a depiction of the disease that initially found itself ravaging the homosexual community. Overall, however, I just don't think the play's all that good -- its importance seemingly stems from its initial "exposé"-style feeling as opposed to anything artistically brilliant.
Photo by Paul Cerro
I'm sure there's purported deep meaning in many of the vignette-like pieces on display in Angels in America, but on an initial viewing, I didn't grasp any depth. Instead, I saw a play that focuses on three men all dealing with AIDS and homosexuality in various ways, but whose stories seemed very "surface," lacking emotional depth and a powerful through-line with which to connect. Perhaps the center of the piece is REP member Michael Gotch taking on the character of Prior Walker who, in his very first scene, reveals to his boyfriend Louis (guest artist Paul Hurley) that he has contracted AIDS. Second, there's Roy Cohn (REP member Stephen Pelinski), a closeted gay lawyer whose brash personality is tested when he also contracts the newly discovered AIDS. Lastly, Joe Pitt (REP member Mic Matarrese) is a Mormon lawyer who finds himself questioning his sexuality as his marriage to Harper (REP member Carine Montbertrand) begins to fall apart thanks to her pill-popping attempts to escape her own unhappiness.
Here's the thing about Angels in America -- these three characters have potential to tell a good story. You can see it from the outskirts of all of their tales. Admittedly, I was intrigued to discover where their story leads them in Part Two: Perestroika, so I did look up a summary of the continuation upon my return home from this production. That said, nothing that writer Tony Kushner does here with any of these men feels anything other than formulaic. Attempts at deep thought feel silly, dream sequences seem out-of-place and unnecessary, and I never once felt any type of connection with anyone onstage. After the wonderment of last season's Wit which similarly dealt with how health and the health care system affects us all, this was a huge letdown from a dramatic point of view.
That said, the play once again proves that the Resident Ensemble Players are a fine group of actors. This time around I found myself impressed with Michael Gotch who made the most of his character Prior's storyline as he not only has to deal with his deteriorating body but also his deteriorating relationship. The standout in the ensemble, however, was Stephen Pelinski whose gruff, fast-talking Roy Cohn breathed a much needed vigor and vibrance into the production. (Pelinski also takes on another small role as one of Prior's ancestors and he does a great job there as well.) Also, once again, Kathleen Pirkl Tague brings great realism to a very small role as Joe's conflicted mother who finds it difficult to deal with the notion that her son may be gay.
I hardly ever quote other reviewers when I complete reviews, but I was very curious about any negativity flung this play's way considering for years I'd heard nothing but avid fawning over it. I came across a review by Lee Seigel in the very liberal New Republic magazine that states, "Angels in America is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay, and about AIDS, no one -- and I mean no one -- is going to call Angels in America the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is." Of course, I agree. There's no bite here -- attempts at politicizing things by crassly calling out Reagan-era politics aren't fleshed out, the Mormon angle of the character of Joe is an afterthought failing to tackle "religion" with any substance, Jewish characters spout biblical references that fail to have any impact. The play lacks a punch as it limply meanders to its three hour conclusion and while it may be politically incorrect to say so, that's this critic's opinion. "Masterpiece" as it's previously been called, Angels in America isn't.