An Epic Look at Reagan-Era Morality : Director Oskar Eustis and writer Tony Kushner are bringing a six-hour, six-act examination of national themes to the Taper Too

Last spring, Oskar Eustis found himself at a theater conference, "tearing out my hair" while confessing a "traumatic personal crisis" to Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson.

After nine years with San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, the last three as its artistic director, Eustis was watching his world break apart. Deaths, economics, attrition--all were taking a toll on the 31-year-old.

"I don't know what I believe anymore," Eustis confessed to Davidson. "I don't know what I think is good, but I know I love this play."

"This play" was a six-act, six-hour work, "Angels in America," subtitled "a gay fantasia on national themes," by 33-year-old Brooklyn-based playwright Tony Kushner (whose contemporary adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 1634 comedy, "The Illusion," has received rave reviews at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and elsewhere). This contemporary epic examines life during the Reagan years, through the experiences of a vast lineup of unusual and unlikely characters, including the notorious power broker Roy M. Cohn and the ghost of accused spy Ethel Rosenberg. Sexual politics, both gay and straight, propels the narrative.

So it was no surprise that when Davidson invited Eustis to join the Taper last September as a resident director, he brought Kushner's epic along. The first half, "Millennium Approaches," received a staged reading at the Taper Lab '89 New Work Festival. Eustis had no choice, he said. To break up his working relationship with Kushner would have felt like divorce.

"After three years," he sighed, "this play is written on my liver."

To an outsider, Eustis and Kushner make an unlikely couple. Eustis is large, fast-talking, aggressive; Kushner is thin, soft-spoken, almost subdued. Eustis flourishes a wild rock 'n' roll mane; Kushner prefers a skull-tight cut in the style of his literary idol, Bertolt Brecht. Eustis is of Scottish descent, raised in a Minnesota home vibrant with political argument; Kushner is Jewish, raised in a Louisiana town by parents who were classically trained musicians. Eustis is straight; Kushner is gay.

Eustis tolerated two years of theater study at New York University before dropping out; Kushner earned a B.A. in medieval studies at Columbia, plus an MFA in stage direction at NYU.

But their "baby"--or half of it--is about to be born. "Millennium Approaches," directed by Eustis, opens Tuesday at the Taper Too. Kushner is still working on the second half, titled "Perestroika." What that will be like, when unveiled at the Eureka next year, is anybody's guess.

Like the director/playwright working relationship, "Millennium" transcends conventional sexual, ethnic, literary and political boundaries.

"I really don't know what it's all about yet," Kushner admits on the eve of "Millennium's" opening. "For one thing, it's only half there. I decided it was OK that it didn't wind up delivering one or two clear points. It's more a painting of what it feels like to me to be alive and in America, gay and (politically) left and all the other things that I am, from about 1985 to now. So it's very impressionistic and not straightforward."

Initially, neither Kushner nor Eustis anticipated that the journey would be so daunting. It was in 1987, while Eustis was directing Kushner's first play, "A Bright Room Called Day," that "Angels" was conceived.

"I'll never forget this phone call that Tony and I had when we first started talking about this play," Eustis said. "We talked about Cohn and how, at the heart of (his) right-wing ideology is the idea that, if you look into your heart, look into the soul of man, it is raging bestial chaos.

"How can we organize our society in a way that has some values instead of this insane rapacious individualism?"

That conversation occurred at a particularly bleak point in the AIDS crisis. In San Francisco, Eustis recalls, the epidemic was reaching "cataclysmic heights." The conservative Cohn--unofficial political power broker, architect of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's black list, friend of the Reagans--was among the victims of the disease.

"I really wanted to write a play on gay issues because I'm gay and I'd never done that," Kushner remembers. "I also wanted to write about some of the larger historical political questions that revolve around the issue of being gay."

The Eureka Theatre Co. commissioned Kushner to write "Angels." Eustis helped secure him a National Endowment for the Arts Special Projects Grant.

"Dark" is the operative adjective for "Millennium." Both Eustis and Kushner view the 1980s as a dark night of the soul for America. The decade's only ideology seems to have been greed, they argue. Basically, as the play underscores, what we've come to believe is that people really only function out of the desire to get rich or the fear of being poor. In theme, if not style, "Millennium" is similar to another recent American play, Howard Korder's "Search and Destroy," which premiered this year at South Coast Repertory. Both plays are highly critical of the Reagan era.

"We live in a world where it's increasingly true that people adhere to systems of morality or law that dissenters have dropped out of," Kushner believes. "The systems come to stand against their adherents. They're essentially dead. It's the place where genuine morality becomes moralism."

Despite such philosophy, "Millennium" dramatically avoids ideological rhetoric. Themes are realized through specific, personal relationships. A young Mormon attorney struggles to repress his homosexuality but "living a lie" subtly undermines his wife's precarious mental balance. A computer programmer's lover is ill with AIDS, but instead of responding with courage and devotion, he panics and abandons him.

The latter situation has made Kushner anxious. He's politically active in the gay community. He was arrested last December along with fellow members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) while demonstrating at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral during Mass. He fears his portrait of a gay relationship crumbling under the pressure of AIDS could cause backlash.

"I'm a little scared in terms of what the gay community will think," Kushner confesses. "But there is another side of this that isn't really talked about very much. In my experiences with the people who had AIDS and those who take care of them, the ordeal is emotionally costly. And a lot of times it doesn't work. The community for the most part has come through. But there are those who haven't. And nobody's done it easily."

Eustis relates to this conflict through his own background, having come from an alcoholic family with its own set of co-dependent relationships. He provided Kushner with insights and anecdotes about back-room politics in Washington, that lent authenticity to "Millennium."

Eustis' father was head of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, a colleague of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. When President Lyndon Johnson appointed him chief counsel to the Small Business Administration, "He finally cracked. At 4 o'clock on the morning of his confirmation hearings, my father found himself sitting on the steps of the Capitol, drunk out of his mind, with a bottle of Scotch in his hands."

Realizing he'd never sober up in time to testify, Eustis' father got in his Oldsmobile and started back to Minnesota. He blacked out and, two weeks later, came to, on a bar stool in Ontario, Canada.

"To the day he died he never knew what happened to the Oldsmobile," Eustis said. His father left politics in order to stay sober. But he didn't stop being political, founding the Minnesota Chemical Dependency Assn. "He died on the day of his 20th anniversary of sobriety."

Such stories about the back-room maneuvers of his politically active father helped bring real politik to Cohn's character.

Cohn never talked about his homosexuality and often appeared in public with a female escort. This denial of sexual identity and its corrupting effects are a key theme in "Millennium."

"I have fairly clear memories of being gay since I was 6," Kushner says. "I knew that I felt slightly different than most of the boys I was growing up with. By the time I was 11 there was no doubt. But I was completely in the closet."

After leaving his hometown of Lake Charles, La., to attend Columbia University, Kushner suffered through "four years of trying to become heterosexual through psychoanalysis." Finally, Kushner "came out," learning several valuable lessons from a gay therapist.

And how does a straight man direct such gay material? Kushner and Eustis discussed this often.

"I have no problems with how I feel about homosexuality," Eustis says. "Sometimes I have to confess to my lack of expertise on certain things. There are occasions when I have to turn to members of the cast and ask, 'What's really going on here? Talk to me. This scene in the park, I'm sorry, I've never been there.' I love that. It produces a commendable modesty and humility on the part of a director, which is very important, because, heaven knows, I direct women, and I'm not a woman."

Eustis' dedication to a rigorous theater of commitment began when he was a teen-ager. He moved to New York at 16 but left NYU to pursue a real education with such seminal avant-garde companies as Mabou Mines and The Performance Group. By age 19, he was working in Germany and Switzerland, and had co-founded the Laboratory Theater of the Schauspielhaus Zurich.

"I flamed very fast and almost burned out," Eustis says of that period. "It was basically from having way too much responsibility and way too much stress and way too much power, way too young. It was nuts. And I was nuts."

Eustis fled Europe, ultimately basing himself at the Eureka as a dramaturg. There his political passions led him to work with a variety of politically and socially confrontational playwrights, among them Ellen McLaughlin, Philip Kan Gotanda, Emily Mann and Kushner.

What primarily unites Eustis and Kushner is a shared view of the world. Neither wants to work on two-character comedies. Both pursue a more analytical, thought-provoking art--a rare pursuit in an increasingly escapist, entertainment-oriented society.

"All playwrights are political," Kushner says. "Some declare and some don't. The theater has an automatic political function." Ironically, Kushner doesn't share Eustis' belief in the transformational power of theater.

"Angels in America" could find itself embroiled in the ongoing debate about National Endowment for the Arts grants since it began with help from an NEA grant, is highly graphic in its sexuality and politically controversial in its denunciation of conservative causes.

"Apparently (Sen. Jesse) Helms is illiterate because he's only focusing on the visual arts," says Eustis, referring to the North Carolina senator who has sought to stop public funding of art he finds offensive. "So I don't think we'll be attracting unwelcome attention.

"But, frankly, I almost wish we would, because it makes me so angry. It's a fundamental democratic struggle. You can't even begin to compromise on this (censorship) issue. If you even start, it's just a domino effect."

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