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Funny, caustic, haunting Angels not to be missed

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

Directed by Michael Mayer.

Written by Tony Kushner.

At the Colonial Theatre through Dec. 3.

By Scott C. Deskin

The critically-acclaimed, Tony-award-winning Broadway play Angels in America is many things: a sentimental treatise on the social implications of the AIDS epidemic; a bold, comic take on homosexuality in an age of political correctness; a nostalgic piece that successfully runs through the catch phrases, moral ambiguities and spiritual excesses of the 80s; and a strange meditation on religion and heavenly redemption. In no specific way, Tony Kushner's play is a smashing success that unpretentiously wins over an audience with its harsh dialogue and intermittent moral breakdowns that befall its characters.

The play is shown in two parts. The first part, entitled Millennium Approaches, introduces a tightly-knit group of characters whose lives are linked by various political, religious, and sexual rites of passage. Joe Pitt (Rick Holmes) is a both a religious and political conservative in the midst of Reagan-dominated America in 1985: At work, he is chief clerk in a federal judge's office and lunches with former Joseph McCarthy aide Roy Cohn (Jonathan Hadary); at home, his job and Mormon beliefs strand his sexually and emotionally frustrated wife, Harper (Kate Goehring). Although Joe has a deep admiration for Roy, he has problems with Roy's intense power plays on the telephone, whose harsh language prompts him to warn the driven lawyer "not to take the Lord's name in vain," and Roy's tendency to play fast and loose with the by-laws of the New York Bar Association. As Joe has doubts about his professional future, concerning an offer from Roy to work in Washington, D.C., his marriage nears collapse due to his own personal estrangement from Harper, as well as Harper's retreat into a world of valium and imaginary travel agents who wait to whisk her away to far-off destinations like Antarctica (where she can observe the hole in the ozone layer, one of Harper's favorite signs of the apocalypse).

Meanwhile, one of the workers in Joe's office, Louis Ironson (Peter Birkenhead) shuffles neurotically through his relationship with his lover, Prior Walter (Robert Sella). An epitome of the neurotic, New York Jew (who also happens to be gay), Louis collapses in grief when Prior tells him of a malignant lesion on his arm - the first outward sign of AIDS. Increasingly, Louis withdraws from Prior as his sickness gets worse, as well as toying with Joe's sexual identity in the mens' room at the courthouse. We learn that Louis still loves and cares for Prior, but simply cannot handle witnessing the physical deterioration of a loved one (as his grandmother's neglected demise in a nursing home indicates). While Prior is hospitalized, he has a series of visions from an angel, who tells him to prepare for "work that he has to do," to deliver a message through Prior, who will act as a latter-day prophet. And Roy Cohn, who has already revealed himself to be an enigmatic, charismatic, and evil political power-broker learns that he has AIDS - a sort of punishment for his hypocritical, ultra-right-wing ideologies in the faced of his closeted homosexuality.

The way in which these situations are resolved are, at best, sketchy; not having seen the second part of Angels in America, entitled Perestroika, I feel left hanging by the multiplicity of events that are introduced in the final act of part one. But the nature of the play is like that of life itself, and the richness of the play is in the situations and dialogue itself: not being reluctant to revel in pop culture while lamenting the fate of social ills on a personal scale - that's the strength of this play. There are many in-jokes that people who lived through the last decade will enjoy: Harper Pitt telling her husband how she heard sexual advice from "a little lady with a German accent" on the radio; the valium-popping Harper encountering Prior in a hallucination, and Prior commenting that "you're dancing as fast as you can" (from a Jill Clayburgh film of the early 80s, I believe); and Prior's ex-lover and unrepentingly-black drag queen Belize (Reg Flowers) making his between-scenes entrance to Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love."

Angels in America, although long (part one is three-and-a-half hours in length), remains a profoundly affecting work. The only problem with the play may be that it's too closely tied to the 1980s and its cultural relevance may be lost on audiences in future generations. However, that's small criticism compared to all the other qualities of the work - the ensemble acting especially is a treat to watch. Although the touring company of Angels in America is just leaving Boston, I encourage you to seek it out wherever you see it playing. At the risk of sounding clich, I think it's an experience you won't soon forget.