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STAGE REVIEW : A Novel ‘Millennium’

TIMES THEATER WRITER

As things stand, Tony Kushner’s “Millennium Approaches” is at once fascinating, enervating, innovating and in severe need of a ruthless editor.

This work-in-progress (important cautionary words), which opened over the weekend at Taper, Too, is . . . well many things.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 24, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 24, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 9 Column 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentification--Kathleen Chalfant played the doctor in “Millennium Approaches” at Taper, Too. She was misidentified in Monday’s Calendar.

It is a novel for the stage, of which we are offered the first three chapters. At 3 hours and 20 minutes, it is Part 1 of Kushner’s larger “Angels in America.” (Part 2 remains to be written.)

It is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” where gay and fantasia apply, but where national themes are dragged in by the shirttails. It is a homo-erotic treatise on post-AIDS gay life, potentially gay life, politically gay life.

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It employs comedy, symbolism, hallucination, death, condoms and contrapuntal scene-playing. It has politicians, ancestors and angels.

It travels from New York to Salt Lake City to Antarctica and occasionally the outer fringes of heaven. It is rambling, ebullient, implosive and only rarely boring.

In what essentially remain parallel stories, we follow the tortuous relationship of Joe Pitt and his wife, Harper; (Jeffrey King and Lorri Holt); of Joe Pitt and his mother (Kathleen Chalfant); of Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn (Richard Frank); of Roy Cohn and his doctor (the versatile Ellen McLaughlin, who later plays an angel, a nurse, a politician and a real estate saleswoman); of Prior Walter (Stephen Spinella) and his lover, Louis Ironson (Jon Matthews); of Prior and Belize (Harry Waters Jr.); of Belize and Louis and of Louis and Joe.

The form of the play is cinematic with the function of the camera taken over by Casey Cowan’s and Brian Gale’s lighting and Mark Wendland’s versatile set that does everything but slice bread. It’s a homely collection of sliding panels that move sideways or up and down (not always smoothly) to reveal small, contained, disparate settings or, as in the case of Antarctica, one expansive one.

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Within these confines we watch the Mormon Harper (a “mentally deranged, sex-starved, pill-popping housewife”) fail to come to grips with her Mormon husband Joe’s repressed homosexuality. We observe Roy Cohn throwing his weight around, pressuring Joe to leave his crazy wife and go to Washington and berating his doctor who informs him that he has AIDS (a hilarious scene, with Cohn distinguishing between homosexuals and a man “with clout” like himself who “has sex with other men”).

On another track we follow the terrified Prior as he sinks into advanced stages of AIDS, while his lover Louis, who lacks coping power, flees the scene, if not the truth.

Some of the play’s liveliest moments deal with Prior’s hallucinations as he lies near death, including masterfully comic encounters with some ancestors come to usher him through to the “other side,” and with a Hebrew-spouting, levitating nurse. Whatever else “Millennium” may be, it’s a sort of seriocomic three-ring circus.

Even Louis’ leftist political haranguing (a tour de force from Matthews) is treated with as much perceptive self-mockery by playwright Kushner as it is with monosyllabic distaste by the earth-mother/queen, Belize, to whom it is addressed. It’s a savvy play that knows its overindulgences.

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In fact, “Millennium Approaches” is a savvy play all around that simply doesn’t know where or when to stop. It has entirely too many endings, any one of which would be quite satisfying.

Closely (too closely?) developed by Kushner with director Oskar Eustis and in association with San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, where Eustis was formerly artistic director, it has yet to separate the wheat from the wheat.

There’s an overabundance of good stuff, but too much is too much. It undercuts focus. The real chaff here is a gratuitous and luridly graphic scene (verbally and visually) of street sodomy in Act II (there are three acts, folks, and two intermissions). It adds nothing and is jarring in a play that has been outspoken and direct until then, but a great deal more subtle.

Given the space limitations and curious box-format dictated by Wendland’s set, Eustis’ direction is inventive and particularly intriguing in a simultaneous lovers’ quarrel between Harper and Joe on one side and Prior and Louis on the other. Eustis orchestrates these in counterpoint, like an angry madrigal, to superior effect.

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There’s no question that there’s serious weeding to be done, and no doubt that it’s worth doing. Kushner, whose stylish adaptation of Corneille’s “L’Illusion Comique” has shown him to be a skillful word-monger, proves here that he can juggle themes adeptly too. But just what those themes are, beyond a major emergence from the homosexual closet, remains to be clarified.

Downstairs at the John Anson Ford Theatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30. Ends June 10. $16; (213) 972-7392.


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