‘Angels in America’ Still Compelling, Relevant (3.5 Stars)

‘Angels in America – Part 1, Millennium Approaches’ – Written by Tony Kushner; Directed by Nancy Curran Willis; Set Design by Brian Boruta; Costume Design by Emily Rosser. Produced by Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts Emerson Arts at 40 Stow St. in Concord, MA through May 4th.


For those too young to recall when the AIDS epidemic first began hitting the headlines in the 1980’s, it should be noted that while the social and political attitudes towards gay Americans are still a far cry from true across the board acceptance in today’s society, things were markedly worse in Ronald Reagan’s America. While gay-bashing in 2014 is most closely associated with hard-right wing ideologues and some of the more extreme religious types in today’s society, that behavior had a mainstream acceptance in the 80’s. And that lack of tolerance only escalated when otherwise healthy gay men started dropping like flies from what was once called ‘Gay Cancer’, sending waves of fear not only through the gay community but also through mainstream America as politicians were under pressure to deal with the newest form of the plague.

So watching the Emerson Umbrella Center’s staging of Angels in America – Part 1, Millennium Approaches’ was part drama and part history lesson for me. In fact, we get to see the reappearance of one of America’s most controversial (and to many – reviled) characters return to the spotlight in the person of Roy Cohn.

Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s Senate Communist witch hunt investigations in the 1950’s, and he reappears here as a closeted gay and self-loathing – but still powerful – lawyer and power broker who has contracted AIDS. His story line is one of three intertwined tales that make for the compelling plot lines of ‘Angels’.

In Cohn’s storyline, he is trying to lure Mormon and latent homosexual lawyer Joe Pitt to take a job in Washington with the Justice Department (for largely self-serving reasons we later discover). A second story involves Joe’s poor wife Harper (the convincingly mad Jennifer Shea), a hallucinating valium addict who copes with her suspicion that her husband is gay by receiving visits from ‘invisible friends’ like Mr. Lies, a travel agent who whisks her far away from her troubles to vacation hotspots like Antarctica; and the third plot involves Louis, a frightened gay man who works with Joe and whose lover Prior has recently begun showing the indelible markings of AIDS-related sores all over his body, which sends Louis looking for the nearest escape route, both literally and figuratively. Both Louis and Cohn have their ‘gaydar’ set off when they meet Joe, who buries his true nature in his Mormon faith, at least for a while, before becoming involved in varying degrees with both Cohn and Louis.

There are some very good performances in this show, particularly David Berti as Cohn, whose seething contempt for himself and the world is portrayed with hateful vigor. Damon Singletary is also very good in his dual portrayal of Mr. Lies and as Belize, the black drag queen friend who supports Louis’ lover Prior after he is abandoned by Louis. In fact, the entire cast is fairly good, with nary a false moment. But while there is much drama to be wrung from the horror of the early stages of the spread of a fatal disease with no effective treatment (at the time) and the tribulations of being a second class citizen in America, some of the play’s most potentially powerful scenes seemed overly long and somewhat repetitive. Some of the most entertaining (and amusing) scenes of the play were the fantasy and dream sequences, but I had trouble connecting their importance to moving the plot along, even as metaphors (although the dream scene where Prior tells Harper that Joe is gay was a clear exception).

Despite those drawbacks, ‘Angels’, is a worthy take, with the aforementioned acting performances and the Emerson Umbrella’s staging (a really great set to boot!) and it is certainly worth seeing as a history lesson as well. Plus, $1 from every ticket sold will be donated to Fenway Health, a Boston-based health organization. For tickets and more information, go to: http://www.emersonumbrella.org/theater/current-season/angels-in-america/ or call (978) 381-0820.