Two Searing Plays Staged in Seattle

`Angels in America' makes its West Coast debut, and `Voices in the Dark' premieres

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

ANGELS IN AMERICA. Two-part epic directed by Warner Shook. At the Intiman Theatre Company in New York. through Nov. 26. VOICES IN THE DARK. Thriller directed by John Pielmeier. At Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre through Nov. 13.

ONE play in history, ``The Kentucky Cycle,'' has won the Pulitzer Prize before having a New York production.

The ambitious two-part epic began life at Seattle's Intiman Theatre Company. The director of that production (and the subsequent Broadway version), Warner Shook, is now the artistic director of the Intiman, and his theater's newest presentation is yet another Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, Tony Kushner's ``Angels in America.''

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Due to Kushner's admiration of ``The Kentucky Cycle'' and Shook's ``sheer tenacity and persistence,'' the Intiman was the first theater to get the rights to present a post-Broadway production of the play.

The Intiman's production of the first part, ``Millennium Approaches,'' is now playing to sellout crowds, and has already had its run extended twice. The final show of the theater's 22nd season, it runs through Nov. 26. Part two, ``Perestroika,'' will be the opening presentation of the new season next spring. Then, Shook hopes, both productions will run in repertory.

Shook directed the production himself and admits that the show was a daring choice, even for what he calls Seattle's ``smart and vibrant'' audiences.

``Angels'' concerns the complicated travails of a group of interrelated characters, including notorious real-life figure Roy Cohn, coping with such issues as sexual identity and the scourge of AIDS.

The play is frank in its language and depiction of gay sexuality, about which the artistic director warned his subscribers.

``I didn't want anybody walking in here thinking they were going to see some Christmas pageant about a friendly angel,'' he says.

Tony Kushner apparently loved the production. He selected it to represent the play at the next Venice Theater Festival in Italy.

The director approached the work with simplicity: ``I have a very lean aesthetic. I believe that the play is the star.'' Nonetheless, he says, ``It was the hardest play I ever had to cast.''

``Angels'' is the finale in a season that has been marked by uncommonly challenging works.

Next season, Schook may present ``Nine Armenians,'' a new play he's enormously excited about. Another possibility is a new play by ``Kentucky Cycle'' author Robert Schenkkan.

A LONELY woman alone in a deserted mountain cabin. A voice on the phone claiming to be a serial killer. A police detective who may or may not be who he says he is. A raging blizzard. A power blackout. A pot on the stove containing something besides beef stew.

These are among elements of John Pielmeier's thriller ``Voices in the Dark,'' now receiving its world-premiere production (through Nov. 13) at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre.

The playwright, who is also directing this production, has tasted both Broadway success and failure.

Pielmeier's ``Agnes of God'' ran for 17 months, has received countless productions worldwide, and was made into a successful Oscar-nominated film. In contrast, ``Sleight of Hand,'' a previous foray into the thriller genre, was an immediate flop, a ``burnout experience'' that drove him away from the theater for several years.

The affable, gentle-looking playwright hardly looks like someone who would intend to spook his audience, but that is exactly what he attempts in his latest work. Indeed, there is one huge scare that particularly delights him.

``I just love to stand in the back of the theater and hear that audience scream,'' Pielmeier says. ``And it's not just the women screaming, it's the men, too.''

That ``Wait Until Dark'' moment comes in the middle of an ingeniously structured plot, which the playwright says came easily. ``It all clicked into place very suddenly,'' he says.

``The interesting thing about the thriller genre is that it demands a certain amount of collusion from the audience. It's very result oriented.

``By its very nature, it's a mousetrap, a man-made contrivance. The audience has to be willing to suspend its disbelief a little bit more than usual, for the sake of the fun,'' Pielmeier says.

Although some of the most successful plays in history have been thrillers, more often than not they flop.

Pielmeier's own ``Sleight of Hand'' was felled by, among other things, technical problems.

``Voices in the Dark'' is also currently showing in Salt Lake City. When asked about a possible New York production, the playwright responds, ``I'm daunted by it.''

But, for now, he's having a great time refining his mousetrap, and Seattle audiences are the beneficiaries.

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