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THEATER : The Play That Made Us Gasp : Considering its subject and length, how did Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ become known as the quintessential drama of our time?

<i> Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer</i>

A pocalyptic, spectacular, “ very Steven Spielberg.” When the Angel of Great Works came crashing through the apart ment ceiling of frail young Prior Walter in Part I of “Angels in America,” all he could do at first was greet her with a quip. This was either a drug- and AIDS-induced delusion or the start of something big.

For Walter, stripped of everything except irony, she was the materialization of a spiritual destiny that would transcend sex and politics while gracing both. For the 1992 Mark Taper Forum audience that was to see the first complete professional production of “Angels,” she could easily have been a portentous and iffy icon, a tricked-up parade effigy of gay pride.

Instead, she blew the roof off the American theater.

“Some playwrights want to change the world,” wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, about the L.A. production, sounding the drumbeat for “Angels.” “Some want to revolutionize the theater. Tony Kushner, the remarkably gifted 36-year-old author of ‘Angels in America,’ is that rarity of rarities: a writer who has the promise to do both. . . . The show is not merely mind-bending; at times it is mind-exploding, eventually piling on more dense imagery and baroque spiritual, political and historical metaphor than even an entranced, receptive audience can absorb in two consecutive sittings.”

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After numerous Tony and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a London Evening Standard Award for Best Play, several box-office records (including a record $931,483 gross for its 52 Taper performances), “Angels” returns to Los Angeles Thursday at the Doolittle Theatre presented by the Center Theatre Group as part of a national tour. It brings a new cast, a new director, a partly revised second half and some new questions.

Three years is a long time in fast-forward America. Not long enough to forget the near-rapture and astonishment that greeted a hugely ambitious work preceded by an impossible-to-live-up-to word-of-mouth, but certainly long enough to reassess what all the fuss was about.

Was “Angels” a bold experiment--like another fin de siecle sensation, Alfred Jarry’s 1896 “Ubu Roi"--which uncannily caught a historic wind but would soon become stranded by a change in the weather?

Were we blindsided by the sheer audacity of a work that capsized contemporary drama’s penchant for naturalism, miniaturization and the solo confessional? What made it such a big deal? Will time follow the awards committees in according it greatness?

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Rich, formerly the New York Times’ lead theater critic and now a columnist there, thinks it will.

“It remains one of the most important American plays of my time,” he says. “Its potency has been further revealed as it’s succeeded around the country. It has a very different view of contemporary American life than we’re used to seeing. It’s an epic that contains a fresh voice and a vision that’s neither completely metaphysical nor completely naturalistic, written with confidence in a lot of different modes--comedy, tragedy, political theater, family drama.”

“ ‘Angels’ appeared at a moment in history that was ripe for it,” Kushner says, looking back. “We were a hit in London. We played the Taper on the day after Clinton was elected. It was like a rock ‘n’ roll performance.”

B efore the play’s first Los An geles opening, however, Kushner wasn’t feeling very festive. “Angels in America” carries the subtitle, “A two-part gay fantasia on national themes.” Together, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” take seven hours to play out. Duration is not the show’s only epic element.

“I never imagined that this was going to come out of sitting down in 1988 to write about what was supposed to be a two-hour play about five gay men, one of whom was a Mormon and the other was Roy Cohn,” Kushner told the New Yorker’s John Lahr, a friend to the production. “The level of attention that’s being paid to the plays is completely terrifying.”

“Angels” had made a five-year journey from San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre to workshops at Juilliard School and New York University to the Taper, Too, to a yearlong run of “Millennium” at London’s Royal National Theatre, pushing ahead of it a widening fever of anticipation. On the first day the Taper box office opened, it took in a record $32,804.

Still, Oct. 9, 1992, was its first bold launch into the acid scrutinies of the American mainstream; no one could know for sure what would happen.

The anticipation of the audience members was palpable. In a series of split-stage tableaux, they watched Cohn, with a heart as black as Richard III’s, try to gain leverage with the Justice Department by maneuvering protege Joe Pitt, a Mormon Republican legal clerk, into an insider’s position. They watched Louis abandon his lover, Prior, who has AIDS. They saw Joe abandon his wife, Harper, to her Valium-induced visions and take up with Louis.

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They laughed at the jokes. They rode the slow train of a soap-opera plot as each character’s life loosened up for the trip. They heard the guilt-ridden Louis say, “I pray for God to crush me, break me up into little pieces and start all over again.”

They heard the conscience-ridden Joe say: “America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people aren’t ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored . . . I need to be part of that. I need something big to lift me up.”

They heard Cohn blast Joe’s indecisiveness: “This is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat--this stinks, this is politics , Joe, the game of being alive. And you think you’re . . . what? Above that? Above alive is what? Dead! In the clouds! You’re on Earth, goddamit! Plant a foot, stay a while.”

And Louis again: “Everybody in the land of the free . . . is scared.”

By evening’s end, the applause that engulfed the cast wasn’t just an impassioned appreciation of its skillful verve and soulfulness. It was the release of a held breath, a grateful recognition for what they and Kushner had evoked in the ominous shadows looming in American life--death in its bloodstream, a shocking new theater of cruelty and rancor rising in the sunlit plain of the Reagan revolution.

In short, “Angels in America” aspired to greatness. Now, theater pros are still giving it high marks.

“I was one of three judges for the Kesselring Prize for playwrights,” recalls playwright John Guare (“Six Degrees of Separation”). “I was reading all these plays and getting more and more depressed. Then I pulled ‘Angels in America’ out of this beat-up box the submissions had come in. I read it and thought I’d gone crazy. I called the other judges and said, ‘Am I crazy?’

“Of course I’ve seen the play and read everything about it, but I’ve never gotten over the experience of that first reading. It was so alive, so electric, so original, so daring. It’s one of the few times I’ve said, ‘This is brand new. Our time will be marked by it.’ It did that thing of giving us a brand-new pair of eyes to see the world with.”

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Says Jack Viertel, creative director of the Jujamcyn Theaters, which co-produced “Angels” on Broadway: “When I first heard about it I thought it sounded like your worst nightmare, a whole Olympic Arts Festival played out in one day, full of phantasmagoria, people crashing into each other. Tony had decided to bite off the entire American subject, if he could, where we are, where we’re going. He really wanted to write a play about the sexual politics and ethnic diversity of the time.

“And he did it. He makes you care about the people, the way you care about the astronauts in ‘Apollo 13.’ Americans respond to the underdog. It could be anyone, the baseball player who bats .300 and has a disease. People who are not gay can identify with these characters and take the ride.”

Amid all the acclaim, it should be noted that the Broadway production of “Angels” was capitalized by $2.2 million of investors’ moneys and a $1.4-million Jujamcyn loan. It set a Broadway record for advance sales and ran 83 weeks. Still, it lost $600,000. Ambition has its price.

“It irks me that the fact that the play didn’t make its money back has been used as a battering ram to beat [serious] plays to death and say they can’t be done on Broadway,” Viertel says, citing the logistical headaches and cost overruns that accompanied such a large-scale production. “If ‘Angels’ had cost the same as ‘Lost in Yonkers,’ it would’ve made its money back three times over.”

M ichael Mayer gained Kush ner’s encouragement and confidence as a fledgling director at NYU, where he directed “Perestroika’s” first workshop production. He has been with “Angels” ever since and is now director (under the Broadway-production director George C. Wolfe’s supervision) of the national tour.

Speaking of the play’s impact, he says, “It was the combination of a brilliant writer and a society on the brink of something completely unknown, a really horrible epidemic, socially and politically.

“We were at a place where we needed to hear what Tony was saying, which came out of a riot of unbelievable events and coincidences. He’s a voracious reader in politics and culture and literature. He has a great understanding of the moment, whatever it is. ‘Angels’ is ambitious the way ‘Middlemarch’ is ambitious, where George Eliot took a huge social canvas to join the personal and the political.

“His genius isn’t just his great analytical mind, it’s his God-given gift of poetry, of telling a story. We were hungry for someone to put the pieces together.”

The theater has been sounding its alarms ever since AIDS began seeping through the arts community in the early ‘80s. Long before “Angels in America,” there was Robert Chesley’s “Night Sweat,” William Hoffman’s “As Is,” Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” and works by Michael Kearns, Tim Miller, Reza Abdoh, John Fleck and Karen Finley.

Wendell Jones and David Stanley brought us “AIDS! The Musical.” There was Alan Bowne’s “Beirut” and Jonathan Tolins’ “Twilight of the Golds.” Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey” ran four months at the Westwood Playhouse. In all, a steady enough staple of works to create a burgeoning sub-genre.

Without slighting the inexpressible sorrow and anger most of these works evoke, what makes “Angels”’ outshine the lot?

“We’ve seen plays about AIDS and gay themes, but none achieved success with audiences by transcending the notion that they were just about gays,” says independent Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann, who has no affiliation with “Angels” but did co-produce another two-part epic, “Nicholas Nickleby.”

“One reason ‘Angels’ did is that it’s an epic, highly theatrical play, almost operatic in scope. It has something to say about America. It was not just a play about a man dying of AIDS, or the gay population. It’s like ‘La Boheme,’ which is a lot more than the story of a woman dying of tuberculosis. And it’s a most moving depiction of prejudice in the United States, when you have a powerful man like Roy Cohn, who would rather die than admit he’s gay.”

McCann cites another element: “There’s a lot of religion in that play. Theater began in the Greek temples and still has a spiritual base, a residue that makes an audience feel a human connection. We get confused in this country. When we talk about religion we think we’re talking about a religious right. But there’s a religious left. A good Christian is a good communist. I think there’s a great spiritual hunger going on in this country right now. ‘Angels’ addresses this.”

As artistic director of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, Oskar Eustis was there at the beginning. He had met Kushner in New York, invited him to the Eureka in 1987 for a production of Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” and asked him to write something specifically for San Francisco and the Eureka.

“From the beginning, I had known I was in the presence of an extraordinary writer,” Eustis says. “He had an unmistakable lyrical voice and an artistic sense that couldn’t be taught. What he did in addition was to write in the service of something to say.”

They applied for, and received, a small National Endowment for the Arts grant. One element of their discussion shows the rigor that went into their thinking. “We talked about the nature of the right, which understands that the postulant is at the heart of humanity and is selfish, chaotic, aggressive and fallen--nothing which one can ascribe to virtue,” Eustis says.

“You have two alternatives. You can throw yourself on God’s mercy. Or you can say yes, you’ve fallen, why don’t we enjoy it so that those of us on top can have a good time? That’s the split that still divides the Republican Party. And it partly explains why Roy Cohn is so funny--he has an enormous range of vituperative taboos. Yet he doesn’t have to hide anything.”

Eustis cites another one of the things that makes “Angels” so compelling.

“It begins with a fundamental issue when Louis does the worst thing imaginable: he abandons his boyfriend to let him die alone. Tony has confronted the audience with its worst fear. In our heart of hearts, all of us wonder what we would do if we had to take care of someone we loved who was terminally ill. It’s the ultimate test.”

Of the five actors who began rehearsals at the Eureka, only one, Stephen Spinella, for whom Prior was written, stayed on--all the way to Broadway. In the meantime, Kushner struggled.

“He was in despair over the democracy in America speech,” Eustis recalls of Louis’ soliloquy in “Perestroika.” “ ‘Why can’t I write what this is about?’ It captures the fundamental contradiction about American life: how we possess so much optimism in a country established through genocide, how so much possibility is drawn out of a history of blood. You don’t ordinarily get that in the theater. Tony didn’t know where this was going. It took him four years to find out. He was too deeply involved in the issues of the day to do it any other way.”

David Esbjornson directed both parts of “Angels” at the Eureka. When Eustis joined the Taper staff in 1989, he brought a draft of “Angels” with him. He and co-director Tony Taccone shepherded the plays through the Taper, Too, and onto the Mainstage. They did not accompany “Angels” to Broadway, where George C. Wolfe took over. The parting with Kushner was bittersweet.

“We’d worked on it for five years and still had differences,” Eustis says. “The blurring of lines was confusing and painful. Tony and I agreed it was time to move on without me. It was the right choice but a sad one.”

Right now, Kushner is at work on the screenplay for “Angels,” which will be directed by Robert Altman. “It’s completely changed my life,” he says of the entire “Angels” experience and its influence on his artistic place in the scheme of things. “I have a level of financial security I didn’t have before. It’s certainly helped my work as a political activist. And now I know I have an audience.

“I do have a belief that’s been strengthened rather than weakened. In the long run, your reputation is made over the course of time. Lately, I’ve taken to reading biographies of other writers and seen that every one has had his ups and downs. It takes the world a long time to make its assessment, but once it does, it’s usually accurate.”

His political outlook is considerably less sanguine.

“Things are exponentially worse in this instance than at any time in my experience,” he says. “It’s a most drastic time. The stakes are fantastically high. The prolonged assault on the cultural revolution that began in the ‘60s and is rooted in the Populism of the late 19th Century is taking a terrible toll. The TV simulacra and the bagmen for the corporations have alienated people to such a degree that we’re feeling massively disenfranchised. Millions of people are out of their jobs and their homes. There’s no education, there’s no longer a language to address the question of where the money is going. What happened to labor?

“I’m speaking out of my own personal panic,” he said glumly. “The November elections have left me in a state of shock. The Democrats are now acting like ersatz Republicans. The barbarians are at the gates.

“We were in New York in what we thought was the beginning of a new era. But it lasted 15 minutes.”

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Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches; Part II: Perestroika opens Saturday and continues through Sept. 2 at the Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000. Part I: Sat.-next Sun., Aug. 19-20, 26-27, Sept. 1-2, 1:30 p.m.; Aug. 15-16, 22-23, 28-29, 7:30 p.m. Part II: Next Sun., Aug. 17-20, 24-27, 30-31, Sept. 1-2, 7:30 p.m. Paired performances, Parts I&II;: $30-$90. Single performances: $15-$55.


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