‘An­gels In Amer­ica’

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Liam Hoare

The 25th an­niver­sary of Tony Kush­ner’s epic ap­proaches.

‘A ngels in Amer­ica” is a play of its time and for ours, too. Tony Kush­ner’s mag­num opus — cur­rently in re­vival at Lon­don’s Na­tional The­ater, and due in movie the­aters here this July — is ap­pro­pri­ately apoc­a­lyp­tic, in­formed by an im­pres­sion of im­pend­ing catas­tro­phe. “His­tory is about to crack wide open,” Ethel Rosen­berg warns Roy Cohn as he makes the case for his own im­mor­tal­ity. “Mil­len­nium ap­proaches.” When the an­gel draws near to­ward the end of part one, an ap­pari­tion sighs: “The 20th cen­tury. Oh, dear, the world has got­ten so ter­ri­bly, ter­ri­bly old.”

AIDS is the up­heaval, the specter, at the cen­ter of the play — or rather, this gay fan­ta­sia on na­tional themes, to bor­row the sub­ti­tle — set in the mid-1980s and writ­ten by Kush­ner from the van­tage of a few years there­after. It is a plague that at once has the power to cut down peo­ple in their prime and tear apart re­la­tion­ships that once seemed sta­ble, to test the very def­i­ni­tion of love. But “An­gels” is also about ev­ery­thing, and thus its ire and angst are sprayed across two plays and seven and a half hours like bul­lets from an au­to­matic ri­fle.

There is a loom­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe. There is a right­ward shift in the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that is spo­ken about as if it were in­tractable, an un­stop­pable rev­o­lu­tion. There is also racial pol­i­tics, not only the re­la­tion­ship be­tween white and black Amer­ica, but also those groups’ re­spec­tive re­la­tion­ships with Amer­ica it­self, as em­bod­ied in the ar­gu­ments and con­flicts be­tween Louis and Belize, a for­mer drag queen and reg­is­tered nurse, re­spec­tively, the lat­ter of whom has some of the best lines on this sub­ject:

Well I hate Amer­ica, Louis. I hate this coun­try. It’s just big ideas, and sto­ries, and peo­ple dy­ing, and peo­ple like you. The white cracker who wrote the na­tional an­them knew what he was do­ing. He set the word “free” to a note so high, no­body can reach it. That was de­lib­er­ate. Noth­ing on earth sounds like free­dom to me.

In the fig­ure of Roy Cohn, played to eleven in the Lon­don re­vival by Nathan Lane, there is the em­bod­i­ment not only of a rot at the core of Amer­i­can life, but also a sym­bol of the right’s marginal­iza­tion and de­mo­niza­tion of gay men — by, in this case, some­one who was him­self gay. The devil has all the best tunes, and thus Cohn de­liv­ers one of the great and most re­volt­ing mono­logues of the play, when his doc­tor tells him he has AIDS. “Your prob­lem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on la­bels,” he says:

Like all la­bels they tell you one thing and one thing only: Where does an in­di­vid­ual so iden­ti­fied fit in the food chain, in the peck­ing order? Not ide­ol­ogy, or sex­ual taste, but some­thing much sim­pler: clout.… Now to some­one who does not un­der­stand this, ho­mo­sex­ual is what I am be­cause I have sex with men. But re­ally this is wrong. Ho­mo­sex­u­als are not men who sleep with other men. Ho­mo­sex­u­als are men who in 15 years of try­ing can­not get a pis­sant anti- dis­crim­i­na­tion bill through City Coun­cil. Ho­mo­sex­u­als are men who know no­body and who no­body knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

I’ve got­ten this far with­out hav­ing to or at­tempt­ing to say any­thing about what ac­tu­ally hap­pens in “An­gels in Amer­ica.” It’s a play so vast that it eludes sum­mary. As Christo­pher Hitchens wrote just be­fore the first half of “An­gels,” “Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches,” came to Broad­way in 1993, “It’s ef­fec­tively im­pos­si­ble to spoil the plot by dis­clos­ing what it’s all ‘about.’” Hitchens men­tions “Mor­mon pi­o­neers, Bol­she­viks, Rea­gan-era men­dac­i­ties and heav­enly in­ter­ces­sions,” though that’s only the half of it.

“An­gels” is at its best when the ac­tion ex­am­ines hu­man re­la­tion­ships: the be­trayal of Prior, the AIDS suf­ferer, by his boyfriend, Louis; the ten­sion be­tween Louis and Prior’s ex-lover, Belize; the break­down of Harper and Joe’s mar­riage; Louis’s des­per­ate fling with the en­rap­tured Joe, and the fa­ther-son bond be­tween Joe, a le­gal clerk, and Cohn, his men­tor. Th­ese re­la­tion­ships are the play’s foun­da­tions and its life. The split scene at the end of Act 2 of “Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches,” when Harper takes flight from Joe, and Louis ba­si­cally aban­dons Prior to die in a hos­pi­tal bed, is fast and fu­ri­ous and crack­les with pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity.

It is for this rea­son that “Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches” re­mains su­pe­rior to part two, “Per­e­stroika.” The for­mer some­how man­ages to be a play about pol­i­tics, faith and ideas while feel­ing taut, fo­cused and, above all, hu­man. Dur­ing the lat­ter, with the ar­rival of the an­gels, the whole thing is blown apart and the wheels to­tally fly off. It is a be­he­moth, roam­ing around in search of some­thing to hold it in and give it mean­ing. The an­gels them­selves, in fact, are the least in­ter­est­ing and of­ten te­dious and di­dac­tic part of the whole the­atri­cal af­fair.

The an­gels of “An­gels in Amer­ica” fore­shad­owed an un­for­tu­nate trend in Amer­i­can play­writ­ing it­self. Per­haps it had to do with the in­stan­ta­neous can­on­iza­tion of “Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches,” in­clud­ing by Harold Bloom, but Amer­i­can play­wrights by and large have taken leave of straight re­al­ism. It is as if re­al­ism can­not con­tain all that th­ese au­thors have to say about Amer­ica and, for a play to be con­sid­ered se­ri­ous and im­por­tant, it must in some way play with the su­per­nat­u­ral and the su­per­sti­tious.

He­len Shaw, writ­ing for Amer­i­can Theatre, also ob­served this shift in Amer­i­can play­writ­ing. “It’s al­most rare to see an im­por­tant piece that doesn’t hint at strange forces gath­er­ing, that doesn’t stretch its hands out to the su­per­nat­u­ral, that doesn’t use re­al­ism for non-re­al­ist ends,” she wrote. Shaw points to “Tracy Letts’s use of the near-silent Cheyenne house­keeper in ‘Au­gust: Osage County,’” but con­sider, too, that the great Amer­i­can play of last year, Stephen Karam’s “The Hu­mans,” couldn’t re­sist play­ing with phan­toms to cre­ate an un­set­tled at­mos­phere. “An­gels” didn’t start this trend, but it surely gave it an un­wel­come boost.

“An­gels” has other prob­lems, too. It in­dulges, through the char­ac­ters of Harper and Prior, in the the­atri­cal trope that those who are sick are more alive and more lu­cid than those who are well — that they are some­how closer to the truth, liv­ing on the “thresh­old of rev­e­la­tion.” It’s also un­clear whether Kush­ner knew in the end how to fin­ish “Per­e­stroika.” Ul­ti­mately, the epi­logue dur­ing which the re­main­ing char­ac­ters one-by-one break the fourth wall and join in an ad­dress to the au­di­ence feels forced, awk­ward and un­sat­is­fy­ing.

Per­haps in a play this broad and deep, the bad should be ac­cepted as a part­ner to the good, for there is still much to be ad­mired in a piece of the­ater that en­com­passes so much, “a huge dio­rama onto which to pro­ject Amer­i­can dis­con­tents,” as Hitchens de­scribed the in­di­vid­ual plays. “An­gels” sheer enor­mity is en­velop­ing, and in the hands of the di­rec­tor, Mar­i­anne El­liott, the re­vival of “Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches” in par­tic­u­lar has a won­der­ful flow and rhythm about it. Main­tain­ing a pace with­out de­stroy­ing the mood is es­sen­tial in a play as rangy and, frankly, long as “An­gels. ”

El­liott’s re­vival, for all its high se­ri­ous­ness, also high­lights how fantastically funny and bit­ing “An­gels” is, an im­por­tant cor­rec­tive to the wellacted but unimag­i­na­tively adapted and pretty staid 2003 HBO minis­eries. As per­for­mances go, Denise Gough as Harper and Nathan Ste­wart-Jar­rett as Belize make a tremen­dous im­pres­sion. The star at­trac­tion here, aside from the inim­itable Lane, is An­drew Garfield as the af­flicted Prior, whose at­tempts at camp and ten­dency to scream his lines rather than act them proved, over time, less than en­dear­ing.

Af­ter two plays, six acts, and seven hours and 40 min­utes of the­ater, what are we left with? “The Great Ques­tion be­fore us,” the creak­ing, de­crepit Alek­sii Ante dil­luv ia no vic hP re laps aria nov says in Per­e­stroika’ s open­ing mono­logue, “is: Are we doomed?” If there is any so­lace for the con­tem­po­rary observer in “An­gels,” it is that even as things fall apart, all hope is not lost. “The world only spins for­ward,” Prior, liv­ing with AIDS for five years by the play’s end, tells us di­rectly, while Harper, on her night flight to San Fran­cisco on a quest for a fresh be­gin­ning, con­cludes: “Noth­ing’s lost for­ever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Long­ing for what we’ve left be­hind and dream­ing ahead.”

Af­ter 2 plays over 6 hours and 40 min­utes, what are we left with?

“An­gels in Amer­ica” will be broad­cast to cin­e­mas in­ter­na­tion­ally via NT Live; part one airs July 20 and part two on July 27

HE­LEN MAYBANKS

BREXIT, PUR­SUED BY A BEAR: Denise Gough in the Na­tional Theatre re­vival of Tony Kush­ner’s ‘An­gels in Amer­ica’

HE­LEN MAYBANKS

Bed­side Man­ners: An­drew Garfield and Nathan Ste­wart-Jar­rett in ‘An­gels in Amer­ica.’

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