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September 20-26, 2006

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'Angels in America'

Jeanine Brown Photography
Couples Therapy: Julianne Arnall and Thomas Theriot star in 'Angels in America.'

Discomfort Cohn

From Mormons to valium to Roy Cohn, City Lights delves deep into Tony Kushner's 'Angels in America'

By Marianne Messina


IN Angels in America, playwright Tony Kushner gives his characters different languages, with a single constant: language is a game of human contradiction. And then he lets the stress cracks develop—no wonder Kushner's world is prone to periodic crumbling, expertly captured in the eaten-away pillars of Ron Gasparinetti's staging of the first half of the epic, Millennium Approaches, at City Lights Theatre Company's production). As Prior Walter (a believable and warm Thomas Theriot) struggles with complications from AIDS, and his boyfriend, Louis (Jason Arias), abandons him; as high-powered lawyer Roy Cohn (Kevin Kirby) denies his AIDS and drills tough politics into his political "son," Joe Pitt (Jeff Clarke); as Joe denies his homosexuality to his valium-dozed wife, Harper (Julianne Arnall), the language underneath weighs the cold, dead, invulnerable, against the warm, the living, the stinking.

The most eloquent language comes from Roy Cohn, who can be metaphorical, analytical and vulgar all in one breath. Kirby gives us a Cohn you can sink your teeth into. As Cohn spits out beautiful metaphors about politics being intestinal, mixing up symptoms of his disease in descriptions of the way the world works, Kirby boldly carves out a unique space for himself where no less than Al Pacino has gone before (on the HBO production). Kirby projects a man much older than himself, convincingly life-battered, wily and pragmatic, more fascinating than sympathetic: "Do you want to be nice or do you want to be effective?" (Clearly a Reagan-era hero.)

As Joe, Jeff Clark is a most pristine morsel of blond white bread, but he also took ownership of Cohn's Mormon protégé. A bit of a stiff, as they used to say, his Joe is the perfect blank slate to get Cohn's Pygmalion antennae twitching. Just as Kushner gives Louis (who would rather be guilty than responsible) academic language, he gives Joe's wife, Harper, poetic language. Unfortunately, in emphasizing poetic wonder, Arnall's Harper feels less like a valium addict than Alice in Wonderland reading Dylan Thomas, which loses Kushner's sense of verbal flowers poking up through the mud.

Gasparinetti's three-tiered stage platform allows for three acting zones, most effectively used to juggle multiple scenes: actors from one scene freeze while another scene "goes live." We therefore see the dialogue of each relationship as part of a larger symphony. Other staging delights include the way Prior's hospital bed looms in the upper zone as a death's head, reminding us not only that two characters in the play are dying, but also of our own mortality (a connection you can't fail to make watching this play). There is some canceling out of this effect when reminders of mortality clash with reminders of the play as artifice. Call me unimaginative, but I do not like to see my bed-ridden, blood-pissing, passed-out protagonists suddenly get up and exeunt under full lighting without so much as a limp.

In the standout performance department, a somewhat filled-out Lance Gardner makes both a pimpin' Mr. Lies (Harper's dream travel agent) and a fabulous dyed-blonde Belize—the good-hearted but astute black queen, nurse to Prior, impatient friend to Louis. His argument with Louis over the hidden shades of ethnocentricity and bias lurking beneath our politically correct veneer is not only intense in exposing nerves, but hilarious. Like many of Kushner's characters, Louis has a long-winded way of contradicting himself, and likewise, the play peaks at the uppermost pinnacles of cognitive dissonance—when we can laugh and feel ugly at the same time. It's a tribute to some superb acting under Kit Wilder's direction that City Lights' production captures this twisted ethos and turns it into a unique kind of enlightenment.


Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 or 7pm through Oct. 15. at 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$25. (408.285.4200)


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