Basically, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that Tony Kushner's fantastical, two-part, six-hour tale set in the early years of the AIDS crisis still holds up. In it, Reagan rules the White House and ignores the rising tide of this terrifying health threat. God seems to have abandoned heaven above, while, on Earth below, imperfect men and women struggle with and often abandon their moral and ethical responsibilities in the face of this devastating disease. The writing is by turns adventurous, lyrical, hilarious, and harsh, and is always compelling.
This is important, because the writing, plus a few technical elements, are virtually all there is here to capture and hold attention. Regretfully, neither director Karesa McElheny nor her eight-member cast prove themselves up to the high-as-heaven quality of Kushner's Pulitzer Prize–winning script, the cold beauty of scenic designers Craig Siebels' and Lacy Lee Anzelc's multileveled, curtained-and-draped, concrete-chilled set, or Luke Moyer's dramatically effective lighting.
McElheny demonstrates an unfortunate tendency to keep her actors facing almost completely upstage at critical moments, and she seems unable to elicit any true depth of feeling, or a sense of life-and-death stakes, from her cast. (Screaming loudly does not equal deep emotion.) In general, there is a remarkable superficiality to the performances, as well as a lack of connection, or chemistry, among actors. Yes, there are a few moments that manage to break through—many of which belong to Dejon Mayes as Belize, a black ex-drag queen now turned nurse, who provides much of the comic relief. And a politically charged scene in Part I between Belize and the emotionally confused Louis (Jamie Rogers), who has walked out on his AIDS-stricken lover, Prior (David H. Ferguson), garners a fair amount of laughs. But there is also important information to be conveyed in that exchange, and it nearly escapes, unnoticed, in the hurried pace of the scene.
Obviously, with Parts I and II clocking in at roughly three hours apiece (including two brief intermissions), there is a need to keep things moving along. But scenes still need room to breathe, relationships still need to be grounded in emotion and not line readings, actors still need time to digest information and events, to feel in their hearts and react from their guts, and plays still need to have the arc of their stories carefully shaded and focused. That rarely happens here.
All of that said, let it also be noted that ambition is good for the soul and good for theatre. Actors and companies should stretch themselves and see how far they can fly. If it turns out they don't reach the heavens, it doesn't mean they should not have tried. It just means there is more to be done. Let the great work begin.
"Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches, and Part II: Perestroika," presented by Open at the Top Productions in association with lilybeau productions at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Part I: Fri. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 1:30 p.m. Part II: Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 25-Apr. 10. $25 (each part). (818) 508-7101, ext. 5.