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CRITIC AT LARGE

Spectacular visions

More than a decade ago, "Angels in America" promised to take theater in a bold new direction. A TV version is about to air, but has the promise been realized? -- Tony Kushner's play broke new ground, but it hasn't transformed Broadway as hoped

It is one of the most amazing scenes in theater from the past half-century. A character named Prior Walter is lying in bed, abandoned by his lover and suffering from an AIDS-related delusional fever. He hears giant wings beating, the ceiling comes apart, triumphal music sounds, and the light in the room changes colors.

"God almighty," a thoroughly awed Prior says. "Very Steven Spielberg."

To quote the stage directions, "In a shower of unearthly white light, spreading great opalescent gray-silver wings, the Angel descends into the room and floats above the bed." The Angel then speaks: "Greetings, Prophet; the great work begins: The messenger has arrived."

And this is only the midpoint of Tony Kushner's great "Angels in America."

The 1991 play, like the Angel, promises a certain kind of deliverance. It attacked the prevalent Reagan-era and religious-right assumptions with a sense of humor that seemed to imply that the left was asserting itself in an exciting new way, at least artistically. It stirred together the sacred and the profane with amazing style and self-confidence.

The play follows two main plotlines. Prior Walter has been deserted by his lover, Louis Ironson. Joe Pitt, a strait-laced Mormon Republican, is the bright-eyed acolyte of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy's ultra-closeted henchman.

If the Angel's appearance is the pivotal point on which the thematic issues of the play turn, it also symbolized a seeming turning point in American theater. The long-awaited screen adaptation of the play, next Sunday on HBO, gives us a chance to think about its effect on American theater.

On Broadway, under George C. Wolfe's direction, the Angel seemed to be announcing, "Follow me back to a theater like Eugene O'Neill's and Arthur Miller's, one not afraid to take on issues that matter and do so in a way that will have people buzzing for years.

"Forget these two-, three-, four-character plays. Think big ("Angels" has eight actors portraying a much larger cast of characters). Play with styles. Play with words. Play with stagecraft. Don't be afraid to mix reality and dreams, naturalism and surrealism, high art and pop culture, straight plays and camp humor."

As Robert Brustein, former head of the American Repertory Theatre and critic for The New Republic, says, "I think its main value resides in Kushner's wonderful writing, [which] restores the drama to its old status as a form of literature. The play combines the political thrust of our theater exemplified by Arthur Miller with its hallucinatory quality exemplified by Tennessee Williams."

In the play, though, it turns out the Angel is something of a false prophet. She helps Prior Walter return to the world of the living, with the understanding we cannot depend on angels to show the way. The way to grab onto "more life" is through union with other people -- sexual and romantic union, but also collective action.

As great as it is, though, "Angels in America," which won the Pulitzer, Tony, and virtually everything else in 1993, turned out to be something of a false prophet in terms of the theater. It sped up the acceptance of Broadway plays that dealt openly with serious, political issues in general and gay themes in particular. But it did not usher in a new, or return to the old, pioneering spirit of Broadway.

Although it seemed like a smash, Broadway economics are such that it did not play long enough to return the investors' money. The production did eventually turn a profit on the road, but who could blame producers for saying, "If `Angels in America' lost money on Broadway, who else can take those kinds of chances?"

Now it's an event if any new play makes it to Broadway. It isn't the end of the world if even Kushner has to go the route of other writers and establish a new play off-Broadway, in regional theaters, or in London before Broadway will look at it. But when Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul," played off-Broadway and at the Trinity Repertory Company some 10 years after "Angels," it meant that fewer people saw it. It therefore hasn't had the chance to take part in the national dialogue on America's response to terrorism that "Angels in America" had on AIDS.

When serious plays don't get to Broadway, it also means that Kushner and other playwrights end up preaching to the converted. Because it was such a direct attack on Reagan and the right, conservatives hate "Angels in America," which is not just par for the course. They don't necessarily hate Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" and Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

What does that say about Kushner's strengths as a writer? Does one have to live in his time and more or less share his mind-set to appreciate "Angels"? Trinity artistic director Oskar Eustis and playwright Neil LaBute say no.

"Look, this is a pretty monumental play," says LaBute, the author of "Bash" and "The Mercy Seat," "and I don't think its impact is dampened one iota by a decade. Kushner writes about big themes and hits them dead on -- when would that ever go out of style? . . . Kushner wrote and America stood up and took notice. Not an easy thing to do. Simply put, this one matters."

Eustis, who was at the birth of "Angels," having directed it at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, says the HBO film (in which he has a small part) proves the greatness of the play. "You see it as not just a response to a particular historical moment as it is to two strands of the American character, between community responsibility and what we owe to others and the equally powerful strand that is the libertarian cowboy streak. And that goes much deeper than just the '80s and Reaganism."

For the moment, at least, Kushner stands at the forefront of American theater. Even new plays by David Mamet or Sam Shepard don't inspire the kind of anticipation as those by Kushner. (Which, granted, has something to do with Kushner's relatively small, Kubrickian output.)

"Angels in America" did not remake the American theater. More by economics than by choice, most of the country's top playwrights work with smaller palettes, both in terms of the cast of characters and the range of concerns. Or, when they deal with political issues, they tend to revert to agitprop or victimization and lose their sense of humor.

Adds Eustis, "Tony, more than any writer of the left I know, is able to describe the extraordinary attraction of reactionary thought. Often the left winds up in a hand-wringing place that is a particularly unattractive place to be," he says with a laugh, "which is why we lose all the time."

If Kushner's Angel did not tear down as many walls as we hoped she would, his "Angels" still restored a spirit of what the theater can achieve when gifted playwrights take on the world. Kushner, even as an agnostic, takes on the universe in "Angels in America." God may be silent; thankfully for the American theater Kushner is not.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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