Angels In America: Perestroika

Ray Saraceni is terrific as Roy Cohn... the '50s demon at the heart of '80s morning-in-America Reaganism.
Villanova Theatre, Lancaster and Ithan Aves., Villanova, through March 27 (and in repertory with Millennium Approaches, Apr. 1-6), (610 )519-7474.

Millennium Approaches, the first part of Tony Kushner's truly remarkable Angels in America, had a forward-moving energy and narrative drive to it -- even if it ended with a tease: the Angel crashing through the ceiling, announcing "The Great Work Begins."

By contrast, Perestroika (the second part of Angels, which Villanova has miraculously brought to the boards only a few weeks after their run of Millennium Approaches ended) appears to wander. All of the characters, young and old, Jew, Mormon and W.A.S.P., healthy and AIDS-afflicted -- Reagan's children all -- are set adrift, exposed to the world and vulnerable, like a snake that has lost its skin before growing a new one.

Prior (Louis Balestra), who is asked by the Angel (Sarah Schmittinger) to become the Prophet of Stasis, spends most of the play, Jonah-like, relentlessly on the run. His ex-lover Louis (Rob Rosiello), who, unable to deal with Prior's AIDS, had left him in Part I, wanders about, guiltily seeking psychic and physical punishment from himself and others. The Mormon Republican lawyer Joe (Steven McChesney), now out of the closet, seeks love and comfort in Louis' arms, but ends up shuttling back and forth between Louis, his Valium-addicted wife Harper (Laurie Norton), and his monstrous mentor Roy Cohn (Ray Saraceni), now hospitalized with AIDS.

One of the miraculous things about Perestroika is that the characters do arrive at where they are going, in the most open-ended, philosophically rich and humane way possible. It helps that they have as their tour guides and fellow travelers (oops -- that's a loaded word for a play haunted by Roy Cohn's virulent anti-Communism) the characters whom we didn't get to know well in Part I: the Angel (whom a character wisely calls a "cosmic reactionary"); Joe's mother Hannah (Maureen Torsney-Weir), who reverses the westward Mormon migration by selling her house in Salt Lake City and braving the streets of Brooklyn and New York; and Belize (John R. Petrie), the drag queen and nurse who ends up tending to Roy Cohn and serving, in some of the most fascinating scenes in the play, as Roy's personal and philosophical "negation."

James Christy and Harriet Power's production of Perestroika at Villanova, like their staging of Millennium Approaches, is stunning, swiftly paced, as complex, reverberant and human as the script and more. And David P. Gordon's unit setting (a monumental staircase and stone slabs all askew, as though shifted out of place by a cosmic and sociopolitical earthquake) works, to my mind, better than it did in Part I: it's wonderful seeing Roy Cohn slide out of his hospital bed to be replaced by Prior in his own bed at home; and while the pyrotechnics and flying of the Angel at the end of Part I were effective, it helps the actor and the staging to let her be wonderfully, majestically earthbound in her scenes with Prior and Hannah in Part II.

Rosiello and McChesney still don't completely integrate their characters' politics with their characters' emotional lives. Norton, who was so striking as Harper in Part I, has less to do in Part II (and it doesn't help that one of her weirdest and most wonderful scenes, with the mechanical mannequin of a Mormon Mother who steps out of a diorama, is cut). And some of the scenes (Joe shedding his skin before Louis in the wintry dunes of Jones Beach; Roy baptizing Joe with his AIDS-infected blood) don't achieve all of their potential punch.

But we have much to compensate. Torsney-Weir's Hannah, now directly engaged in the play's action, shines; and her Ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, posthumously sparring with her old nemesis Roy Cohn, is perfect. Petrie grows and grows in stature as Belize, culminating in the last of his many tirades against Louis and America. And Saraceni is terrific as Roy Cohn. Vocally, temperamentally and physically different from both the historic Roy and from any of the other actors who have portrayed him (he's a big galoot, more an uncaged gorilla than a rabid ferret), he has made the role thoroughly his own. He rages, he despairs, he roars, the '50s demon at the heart of '80s morning-in-America Reaganism.

And the play offers, as its grand finale, Balestra's Prior, standing before the stone angel of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, sharing with us the imperfect, incomplete and completely transformative wisdom of the preceding six-and-a-half hours of the play's two parts: that the Great Work now, truly, begins.

If you saw Villanova's Millennium Approaches, don't miss Perestroika. If you missed it, see it anyway. If you don't have a ticket, just show up (a subscriber or two may have unwisely decided to pass on it). Or, better yet, rush out to get your ticket for the week of April 1, when you can see the two parts together. Angels in America is one of those rare plays about characters whose lives change that can change yours.

-- Cary M. Mazer