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Angels

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Los Angeles, the City of Angels, has always been a sort of adopted home for Tony Kushner's epic, seven-hour play, Angels in America.

Kushner began writing Angels for the small Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, but as the play grew in scope (and in length) it became clear that only a larger theater with greater resources, could stage such an ambitious work.

Luckily for Kushner, L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum stepped in and was the first theater in the world to mount a full production of Angels in America over two nights, complete with all eight acts, 59 scenes, 24 characters and, yes, a flying angel with giant wings.

The two evenings of Angels: Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika broke all of the Taper's box office records and turned Kushner's play into a theatrical juggernaut. The production then went to Broadway where it won almost every award it was eligible for.

Now, thirteen years later, Angels in America is back in Los Angeles. But instead of appearing at the 750-seat Taper or a venue of similar size, Angels is returning to the type of small theater that Kushner first envisioned for his groundbreaking work about AIDS, Roy Cohn, and the 1980's.

Director Karesa McElheny's scaled-down production (which took two local theater companies to mount) offers a excellent chance to revisit Kushner's monumental work and see how this influential play holds up following its successful stage runs during the 1990's and the recent film version directed by Mike Nichols.

Seeing Part I: Millennium Approaches (the far superior of the two parts) over this past weekend, was a refresher course in the joys and frustrations of Kushner's writing. As the playwright showed in the recent Homebody Kabul, Kushner has an incredible gift for creating scenes that are both timely and timeless. Like the Homebody's monologue that opens that play, Roy Cohn's rant in Angels that describes how, despite the fact that he sleeps with men, he is not a homosexual, ranks with some of America's finest recent writing, in any medium.

But while reminded of Kushner's talents, watching Angels on stage again after many years forces one to acknowledge the overwrought, didactic, and often amateurish elements that are often present in this work.

Most apparent is the absence of real human drama in much of the play. Like lots of undergraduate writing, Angels is short on genuine conflict, and long--real long-- on talk about things that are to come. Because of this tendency, in many ways Angels works better on screen. Sure, Kushner's writing is helped in the film by a cast that includes Al Pacino and Meryl Streep--but what really makes the HBO version of Angels work is the form.

Instead of classic dramatic structure, Angels plays out as a simple timeline of incidents. Its historical backdrop and ensemble nature align it more with the structure of a television mini-series--which is why Mike Nichols was able to make the whole of Angels work so well on the small screen.

Here in a small theater setting, the NoHo production only really comes alive in the intimate scenes between Louis (excellently portrayed by actor Jamie Rogers) and his dying lover, or in the one-sided conversations presided over by Roy Cohen (played by Jeffery Cabot Myers).

This smaller version cannot mask Angel's problems as well as an expensive film can, obviously, but it can show that underneath its length and grandeur, what's best about Angels in America is not its politics or portentousness, but rather its ability to artfully depict the flaws that human beings inevitably reveal when dealing with each other. Because this NoHo production succeeds at this, it's a shame that it still strives for grand theatricality with a clumsily rigged flying angel. A less literal way of depicting the angel would have been cheaper and more original--to say nothing of more evocative--than simply putting an actress with fake wings on wires.

Angels in America runs at the NoHo Arts Center through April 10.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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