"Millennium Approaches," the first half of Tony Kushner's epic "Angels in America," is about things coming apart. The second half, "Perestroika," begins the difficult task of bringing them back together in new and unexpected ways.
The most unexpected commingling is a remarkable scene in the last act in which the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted and executed spy, says Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, for the man who claimed to have been most responsible for sending her to the electric chair -- Roy Cohn.
The improbability of this scene is characteristic of Kushner's wildly imaginative drama, currently at the Kennedy Center, where it follows a five-week run of "Millennium Approaches" and continues the adventures of "Millennium's" eclectic cast of characters.
"Millennium" presented two interlocking tales of desertion -- a married, Mormon, repressed homosexual, Republican lawyer left his agoraphobic, Valium-addicted wife; and a gay man, dying of AIDS, was deserted by his gay lover. In "Millennium's" final, cliff-hanging moments, an angel crashed through the AIDS patient's bedroom ceiling.
Here, that angel is joined by six of her fiercely reactionary, bureaucratic cronies.
These less-than-benevolent angels are typical of "Perestroika," which is filled with even more unlikely juxtapositions than its predecessor. For example, a gay Mormon Republican lawyer may seem like a mixed metaphor, but he's topped by his mother, Hannah, who veers so far from stereotypes that an exasperated character tells her: "I wish you would be more true to your demographic profile. Life is confusing enough."
Rendering the incredible credible is part of the genius of "Perestroika," a work that not only fulfills the promise of "Millennium" but surpasses it. (After all, a play that makes you believe the Ethel Rosenberg-Kaddish scene can make you believe almost anything.)
"Perestroika" accomplishes this because the fine performances and ensemble acting, under Michael Mayer's direction, allow us to see the humanity in Kushner's extraordinarily diverse characters, as well as the strength of the seemingly implausible connections between them.
In the case of Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah, the connections are reinforced by having the characters played by the same performer -- Barbara Robertson, who imbues both women with toughness and compassion and makes uptight Hannah positively heroic.
In other cases, such as Robert Sella's warm, humorous, heart-rending portrayal of Prior, the AIDS patient, the character's shifting relationships showcase his growth, particularly when we see Sella struggle with Carolyn Swift's adamant angel or stand up to the lover who abandoned him. The lover, an outspoken liberal played by Peter Birkenhead, unwittingly turns out to have something in common -- excessive self-interest -- with his ideological opposite, the gay Mormon Republican lawyer (Philip Earl Johnson).
Only Jonathan Hadary's venom-spouting Roy Cohn lacks surprises, remaining true to "Perestroika's" description of him as "the polestar of human evil." Wracked with pain, the dying Cohn no longer exhibits a glimmer of the charm that occasionally peaked through in "Millennium."
Unlike all of the other venues to which this production has toured, Kennedy Center has regrettably chosen to present the two halves of "Angels in America" in succession instead of in repertory. Though "Perestroika" is the grander of the two halves, it would lose a great deal without the underpinning of "Millennium." The program contains a synopsis of "Millennium," but theatergoers who attend only "Perestroika" would benefit from reading the full script of "Millennium" beforehand.
Ultimately, what makes "Perestroika" so meaningful isn't just the breadth of Kushner's imagination or his knack for creating fantastic juxtapositions, it's the moving theme of forgiveness in the wake of loss. Forgiveness, a character says before the Kaddish scene, is "the hardest thing." Maybe so, but in a world increasingly in shambles (a condition reflected in designer David Gallo's junk-heap set), Kushner makes a powerful case that it is also a necessity.
What: "Angels in America: Perestroika"
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through July 9
Call: (800) 444-1324