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The Devil's Playground

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Mar 6th, 2016

Tony Kushner’s award-winning Angels in America has landed at Rhinebeck’s Center for Performing Arts. The star of the ironically entitled play features Lou Trapani as an unforgettable Roy M. Cohn, the American Lucifer of the 20th Century, the next best evil character to Melville’s Ahab. While the general quality of acting remains good, Trapani is superb as the corrupting force of American conservatism. The play becomes worth seeing just for Trapani’s performance, yet there are other virtues at work.

Bill Ross as the manic, voluble Louis Ironson is pitch-perfect topsy-turvy, while Cezar Remon as coolly caustic Belize contributes smooth magic. Emily Depew as a madwoman, and Alex Taylor playing the repressed homosexual, both hit their stride in the third act. Director Marcus D. Gregio allows Kevin Archambault as Prior Walter to over-indulge in adolescent hysteria.

Since the play concerns the angst of men attracted to men, the role of women remains peripheral. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, played confidently by Alex Heinen, provides a heroic deus ex machina at the conclusion. Heinen also does well as frustrated Mormon wife number two.

The three-act play runs a tad over three hours as it wittily meanders through American politics and culture thirty-one years ago amid the specter of the AIDS epidemic. That subject freights renewed relevance amid the revival of AIDS today through the heroin epidemic now sweeping the country as blowback from the Afghan war.  Both Russia and the United States failed to grab monopoly control of the opium trade.

The first act of the play depicts the tawdry banality of American culture as an imbecilic “heaven.” I wish about ten minutes of that act were cut. The second act, much more witty and funny, paints American culture as a purgatory with no exit. The third act descends into the depths of hell where a raging Lucifer meets his end, while the Angel of Death takes an innocent parallel character.

The script often wallows in the banal, yet interweaves lively wit and compelling poetry at odd moments. The use of ghosts from the past recalls Charles Dickens’ famous short story, “A Christmas Carol.”  Sets were functional with a two-story stage that often presents counterpoint. The sound track, usually mood music, remains quite unremarkable. In an unusual way, the politics of the play offers a prophetic projection of how we have ended up in the mess that we currently inhabit.

This production has only one more weekend to run. Ticket prices are reasonable (reduced prices for students and seniors) for this thought-provoking production.

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You won’t regret meeting Lucifer himself.