'Angels in America'

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is one of the grand achievements in 20th Century theater. Unfolding in two parts over seven hours, the playwright’s intimate epic examines both the personal and the political in Reagan-era America as a mysterious new illness called AIDS was beginning its deadly rampage.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s two parts — Millennium Approaches and Perestroika — have been done in many large theaters, the 1993 Broadway production winning the Tony Award, the version at London’s Royal National Theatre earning widespread acclaim. A superb touring version played Miami’s grand, historic Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in 1995.

Still, the very intimacy and Brechtian theatricality of Angels in America make potent, small-scale professional productions of the play quite possible. Coral Gables’ New Theatre proved that in 1997, winning four Carbonell Awards (including best play) for its powerfully acted two-part production. Now, Fort Lauderdale’s tiny Andrews Living Arts Studio is tackling Millennium Approaches, with less impressive results.

Using 11 actors in the play’s 17 roles, director Robert D. Nation achieves a better result than he did with Moises Kauffman’s The Laramie Project, though some of that improvement is due to the power, insight and humor of Kushner’s remarkable script. The performances range from good to subpar, though there are more than a few moments when the play potently coalesces on the theater’s small black-box stage.

Blending a hard-hitting overview of 1980s politics with painfully personal stories, Millennium Approaches tracks the disintegration of two relationships. Louis Ironson (Larry Buzzeo), a gay intellectual fond of delivering sociopolitical analysis in the form of monologues, is stricken when he learns that his former drag queen partner, Prior Walter (Larry Brooks), is developing the telltale lesions of AIDS-associated Kaposi’s sarcoma. As he withdraws from the relationship, Louis finds himself increasingly attracted to Joe Pitt (Brian McCormack), a married Mormon lawyer fighting hard to bury his true sexual orientation.

That truth is something Joe’s valium-addicted wife Harper (Elizabeth Aspen) can’t bear. Escaping into drug-induced hallucinations, Harper is an agoraphobic handful. Her needs, and Joe’s determination to avoid acting on his desires, keep Joe from moving to Washington for a Justice Department job arranged by vulgar powerbroker Roy Cohn (yes, that Roy Cohn, the closeted McCarthy-era lawyer).

Bellowing and raging, Gilbert Lenchus as Cohn chews up what little scenery there is. Finley Polynice is a warm and artfully tart Belize, Prior’s prior partner. Buzzeo is a persuasive Louis, and Aspen’s spacy Harper amuses rather than stirs empathy. As Joe, McCormack is a tall cipher, one who tends to waggle his chin from side to side as he speaks. Brooks has his moments as Prior, though his lack of projection (a common flaw in this cast, Lenchus excepted) and rushed speech keep his lines from landing as they should.

Andrews Living Arts manages a visual wow of an ending as the Angel (Naureen Chhipa) finally appears to Prior, after much whispering and the flapping of giant wings. Too bad that what precedes it doesn’t have the same impact.