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`Angels in America' Remains Earthbound

Part I, MILLENNIUM APPROACHES Drama by Tony Kushner. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenery by Robin Wagner. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting by Jules Fisher. At the Walter Kerr Theatre.

MILLENNIUM Approaches," as the first play of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" cycle is called, is a harsh, shattering drama about futile struggles for love and power.

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The play, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, has a power and boldness seldom seen on Broadway, but its homosexual themes may eliminate it from some theatergoers' agendas.

Ron Leibman's performance as the late Roy Cohn (best known as the chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his Senate investigations of communism in the 1950s) is spectacular. Leibman plays the power-hungry attorney in a nervous manner that also has remarkable subtlety.

Director George C. Wolfe has done an exceptional job of tying together the diverse scenes into a single play. But he seems to go beyond what the script calls for in depicting sexual situations and nudity for their shock value. In several instances, Kushner's words would have been more moving if they were simply stated without embellishment.

"Millennium Approaches" follows three interweaving plots. In one about a gay couple, a man with AIDS is abandoned by his companion. Another strand of the plot involves attorney Cohn desperately trying to hang onto political power in the face of disbarment and AIDS. And a third story follows the disintegration of a heterosexual marriage when the husband acknowledges his homosexuality.

Yet even in the play's darkest moments, some of Kushner's characters have strength and humor that transcend their dire circumstances and even some of their most strongly held convictions. They seem to struggle for a sense of peace and well-being that eludes them.

In one example, Cohn manages to put aside self-interest long enough to help a young man gain influence in Washington politics. Playwright Kushner also tempers his scathing portrait of Cohn by giving him a sardonic and sharp sense of humor. In describing former United States Attorney General Edwin Meese, Cohn says: "He doesn't specialize in the fine points of the law."

Kushner's play sometimes seriously flounders, especially in scenes between the married couple. Some of the dialogue is wooden and forced. Yet "Millennium Approaches" has moments that reveal how good theater can be. These occur when the characters look beyond their own needs, but these moments are few and far between.

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* Part 2 of "Angels in American," called "Perestroika," will be staged in repertory with Part 1 in the fall.

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