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ANGELS IN AMERICA at Shea’s Smith on Main Street, last weekend for this award-winning play

THE BASICS: ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play by Tony Kushner presented by Second Generation Theatre, directed by Greg Natale, runs only through March 24, Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main St. (508-7480). www.secondgenerationtheatre.com Runtime: Three and a half hours with two intermissions

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: It’s 1985; we’re in the mid-years of the Reagan Administration (1981-1989). Manhattanite WASP-y Prior Walter has developed AIDS. This freaks out his lover, Louis Ironson, who deserts Prior and, now “free,” soon comes on to, in a casual office fling, an ultra-closeted Mormon Republican lawyer, Joseph Pitt, whose wife, Harper Pitt, is a Valium addict, unable to understand what is wrong with her marriage. Meanwhile, Joseph’s boss, Roy M. Cohn (the real-life, historical lawyer), who screams at his doctor that while he may have had sex with multiple men he is not homosexual, has also contracted AIDS and in a convoluted plan to die before a federal investigation dis-bars him, attempts to bully Joseph into joining the Department of Justice to de-rail those proceedings from “the inside.” Additional characters include the sympathetic Belize who is a flamboyant ex-drag queen/hospital nurse, Joseph’s conservative mother, and an interesting collection of ghosts and angels, a rabbi and street people, among others.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: “Millennium Approaches” is the shorter (3-1/2 hour) first play of a two-play “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” “Millennium Approaches” stands alone, but having seen it, I can imagine how it would be better if seen along with part two, the longer “Perestroika” (4-1/2 hours). Occasionally, both plays are performed back to back, which is about a nine-hour commitment. That might seem crazy but having only seen “Millennium” I can see the attraction. (To calibrate, Wagner operas can take about six hours and the entire Ring cycle takes about 15 hours). However, we don’t have to worry about that here. Stretching their theatrical wings, as it were, in the tight quarters of the Smith Theatre (the former “Laube’s Old Spain” restaurant adjacent to Shea’s ticket office), Second Generation Theatre is only presenting the first part.

Looking around at the audience, many in the demographic cohort known as “Millennials” (born during the 1980s and 1990s) I wondered if to them, the AIDS crisis, like the Vietnam War depicted in MISS SAIGON or Watergate central to FROST/NIXON was more historical and less visceral.

Some context: According to United Nations HIV, or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is currently carried by about 36 million people world-wide. In some people, the virus lays dormant, others respond to treatment including many more drugs than the first one on the scene, AZT, but in others it ultimately leads to “Stage IV” symptoms known as AIDS or “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” from which about a third die of Tuberculosis. That was very common in the United States in the 1980s where the first five cases of AIDS weren’t clinically reported until the summer of 1981 and the disease wasn’t formally titled AIDS until 1982. The slow response of the Reagan Administration to this national and international crisis has been a sore point for decades and is often referred to in dramatic works.

Just as the 1991 play ANGELS closes at the Smith, a few hundred feet away, on Shea’s main stage, the 1996 musical RENT opens on Tuesday, March 26, also set in Manhattan in the 1980s, also with a central character dying of AIDS. Other Broadway plays have dealt with this crisis, including one of the first plays (1985) to confront the issue, Robin Swados’ A QUIET END, as well as Larry Kramer’s THE LONELY HEART and THE DESTINY OF ME, and his more pointed criticism of the Reagan administration’s response to AIDS, a 1988 play called JUST SAY NO, titled after first-lady Nancy Reagan’s response to the rise in drug addiction (particularly crack cocaine). And the great Terrence McNally had a Broadway success in 1995 with LOVE!, VALOR! COMPASSION!

In 2018 Time Magazine reported that HIV is no longer a death sentence and that while initially it was only seen “among marginalized populations, including gay men, IV drug users and sex workers” today, about 25% of Americans with HIV are women. In 2014, it was reported that 44% of new HIV diagnoses were with African-Americans, and you can read more statistics at HIV.gov.

So, obviously, promoting safe practices is still vital. If you need a refresher on AIDS, the NIH, and Planned Parenthood maintain great websites.

Every year, the Buffalo theater community collects donations from audiences and as part of the Artie Awards makes a large annual donation ($40,000 in 2018) to ECMC’s Immunodeficiency Clinic, which currently has about 1,000 active patients, with more and more coming from Buffalo’s expanding immigrant community. The play ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES ends with an angel proclaiming to the character Prior Walter that “The Great Work” has begun. Kushner doesn’t spell out what “the great work” is, exactly, but federal protections for same-sex marriages, currently ten LGBTQ members in the U.S. Congress, and recently Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, running for President could be part of “the great work.” Certainly treating, controlling, and hopefully someday eradicating HIV/AIDS is “great work” and that’s my takeaway.

ANGELS Director Greg Natale leads the pre-production table work Source SGT Facebook

But, back to the play, it’s absolutely a “must see” if only for its place in the history of American theater. And it has some bright spots, including first rate acting by Ben Michael Moran as the lead character “Prior,” Dudney Joseph Jr. as the nurse “Belize,” and David Oliver as the evil Roy Cohn (by the way, an early mentor of and lawyer for Donald Trump). Kristin Bentley as the Valium-addicted Harper Pitt beautifully contrasts her “normalcy” with her mental illness. Perhaps it was unclear direction by Greg Natale but many of the other characters were just not believable. That could be by design, but I’m not sure.

…it’s absolutely a ‘must see’ if only for its place in the history of American theater.

The smaller Smith Theatre works well for the many one-person shows that come through, for example the “Late Night Catechism” series or the “Dixie Longate” plays. And, this season, Artie Award winning Paul Bostaph’s set for Donna Hoke’s football fantasy ONCE IN MY LIFETIME worked well up on the stage, and Second Generation Theatre’s BIG FISH with completely re-invented thrust staging by Chris Cavanagh was high energy, physically active, and very exciting. However, the staging for ANGELS just felt cramped and second-rate, and the scene changes dragged. And, I’m sorry to give this spoiler alert, but just as with MISS SAIGON’s helicopter, or SWEENEY TODD’s barber chair there are certain theatrical devices that everyone waits for, including the angel actually crashing through the ceiling of Prior’s bedroom. That was a bit of a letdown.

Lead image: ANGELS Prior (Ben Michael Moran) contemplates AIDS Source Mark Duggan

UP NEXT: A one-night only fundraiser for SGT called PAGE TO STAGE 4: MISCAST! involving well-known Buffalo actors including Charmagne Chi, Dudney Joseph, Jr., Michele Marie Roberts, and others singing roles for which they will never be cast “because of age/type or gender” at Shea’s Smith Theater Sunday, April 14, 2019. Doors and bar open at 6:00 p.m., the show starts at 7:00. And NINE, the Tony Award-winning musical a cast of 14 female performers, all directed by Victoria Perez, runs June 14-30.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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