Angels | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at Puszh Studios

Doris and Allan, the protagonists of Angels, first become friends while incarcerated in a psycho ward, for reasons we don't discover until they've almost finished telling us about their lives. Doris's story begins with the night she and her husband shared a syringe with a cocaine dealer named Jesus; they both contracted AIDS. Allan, on the other hand, decided immediately upon hearing of the disease that he was sure to die from it and set out to become infected. Both are doomed to survive the people they love, however, and to find some way of dealing with their grief and anger in a world seemingly overrun with hypocritical or ineffectual comforters.

Stuart Allen is author, director, and star of Angels--and, according to his publicity, an "HIV-positive recovering crack addict." While this may render his credibility unimpeachable, it does not automatically render his writing flawless. The journey to mend Doris's and Allan's broken hearts offers too many side trips poking fun at easy, overworked targets: new-age mystics, exploitive bosses, homophobic fundamentalists (whose pious declarations reveal a secret craving for sodomy), and assorted authority figures. All of them are presented as comic grotesques--the hospital nurses and an unemployment counselor Doris consults are all fat females, and a bored angel in leopard-skin crown disses the human race like a weary baby-sitter: "You people can't be left by yourselves for a minute!"

Being HIV-positive does not necessarily render junkies and neurotics attractive, either. As we move into the second hour of listening to Doris spew hostility and Allan self-pity, their deliberate vulgarity and the sanctimonious egocentricity that motivates it become irritating. Allan is given to remarks like "I blow my nose and my snot comes back at me!" and casually refers to women as "fish." Doris introduces herself to him with an anecdote about butter as a rectal lubricant and later achieves satori while shopping for hemorrhoid medication. These repugnant images are flung in our faces with a curious ingenuousness, as if these two were children bent on demonstrating what dirty little brats they can be. If ever there was a play to debunk the notion that imminent death transforms misanthropic mediocrities into saints, this is it.

They sort of grow on us, though. The impact of Allen's play may be diluted by verbosity and vulgarity, but the fact remains that every human being, no matter how imperfect, deserves peace of mind, and Angels has its moments of originality and humor based on recognizable human experience. An episode involving a junkie's badly gangrened foot is ugly but could very well be based in fact, as could the scene in the hospital when Allan persuades Doris to dance with him: "If you don't dance, I'll tell the nurse you're thinking suicide--you'll be locked up under observation for the next two days." A scene in which Allan helps a dead friend's sister pack up his belongings, and another in which a potential lover shrinks from Allan upon learning of his illness, though clumsily didactic convey a poignancy that hints at what Angels could have been.

Doris and Allan deliver no insights that are not predictable from the first--it turns out that the key to serenity was right under their noses. Yet Valorie Hubbard as Doris and Allen as Allan radiate enough creepy charm and enthusiasm to make their spiritual journey engaging if not inspirational. Able support is provided by Laurie Larson and Paul E. Mullins and by set designer Carleen Casati Boyd, whose ingenious optical-illusion portrait of an angel is so mischievously cherubic as to seem a character in itself.

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