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Angels Land at Ensemble, and the Result Isn't Always Heavenly

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It seems the more we try to push some plays into the category of "period piece," the more they fight to remain fresh and contemporary. For a while now the renowned work of theater, Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, has been considered a devastating snapshot of this country 30 or more years ago when AIDS was a scourge and homophobia was rampant.

We thought that some of those issues had improved in the years since, and perhaps some have. But apparently hate never dies, it just hibernates — which makes this Ensemble Theatre production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches particularly timely. (Ensemble will mount Part Two: Perestroika this spring.)

Although Millennium runs three hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions, it never feels that long, thanks to Kushner's glorious language. His words don't just flow, they prowl and then pounce unexpectedly, keeping the audience on the edge of the playwright's plea for human connectedness, even in the midst of confusion and tragedy.

In this production directed by Celeste Cosentino, the performances are not consistently solid due to a condition one might call the Very Important Play syndrome. This Pulitzer Prize-winning script has been so lauded, and is so important to so many people, there is a tendency to invest every line reading with maximum import, thereby weighing the whole enterprise down. And some actors in the cast appear to be carriers of this theatrical virus.

The show comprises many scenes involving a core group of characters in New York City, five of whom are gay men. Prior Walter is a semi-flamboyant fellow who already has several purple patches on his skin indicative of Kaposi's Sarcoma, the deadly wine-colored indicator of AIDS. While he deals with his disease along with his nervous and talkative lover Louis, closeted Joe Pitt is locked in a tortured marriage with his wife, Harper, who is often hallucinating due to her daily intake of Valium.

Joe is a young acolyte of Roy Cohn, a real-life vile lawyer from the time who explains his sexuality in the third person: "Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys." Cohn was the lawyer who partnered with the hateful Sen. Joe McCarthy during the blacklisting Army-McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s.

And as we all know from current news, Cohn served as President Trump's mentor and counsel for 10 years — prompting our toddler-in-chief to recently cry out for a Roy Cohn-like influencer to help him. If you're keeping count, the last of the gay men in the show is Belize, a wise, no-nonsense nurse who attends Prior during his hospital stays.

Three decades ago, that was a bracing lineup of male homosexual voices that hadn't been assembled in that way before, providing a new perspective of that portion of our country's sexual landscape. That led to Millennium receiving nine Tony nominations and winning the award for Best Play. But these days, many gay issues including the right to marry have been resolved. (At least, we hope so.) In any revival of such a topical play, this many years later, the play needs to be approached less with reverence than with bold risk-taking.

However, the scenic design by Ian Hinz takes this production in a very literal direction. Utilizing slides of specific locations, both photographed and painted, along with select videos, the actors are placed accurately in space and time (here they are in an apartment, there they are in a hospital room or a bar). But the large and eclectic background images add little or nothing to the information already provided by a simple couch, a hospital bed, or a high cocktail table, making the entire staging feel oppressive and overdone.

This literal design concept is matched, unfortunately, in some of the performances. As Harper, Kelly Strand plays moods rather than crafting a singular character, making this conflicted woman much less complex and interesting than she should be. In a similar way, Craig Joseph has some traits of Louis, including talking a mile-a-minute, but we never fully sense the person beneath the quirks. That is, until the third-act scene with Louis and Belize (a charming and perfectly sassy Robert Hunter) in a coffee shop where, finally, we see characters engaging with one another in an unforced manner.

Happily, other performers rise to the occasion, including Scott Esposito as tormented Prior and James Rankin whose rather one-note portrayal of Joe is nicely contrasted when he appears as one of Prior's more voluble ancestors. And Derdriu Ring crafts four small characters with exceptional skill, giving each a distinctive posture, voice and manner.

The fragmented parts of this play should be linked by the repellent character of Roy Cohn, but Jeffrey Grover almost makes Cohn seem cuddly. Instead of feeling the cold wind whistling from the abyss whenever Cohn speaks, Grover's inherent warmth as an actor tends to soften the edges of that monster.

As staged in Ensemble's newly re-imagined proscenium space, this first part of Angels once again offers us Kushner's words, which is always a blessing regardless of other wrinkles.

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