Tony Kushner’s immortal play, no matter how you experience it, still needles and aggravates a sore nerve.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America became an instant sensation when it opened on Broadway over 25 years ago. During its original run, the seven-and-a-half-hour play, told in two parts, went on to win four Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize. Angels was universally celebrated as a capital-I Important work, particularly for how it at once personalized and made metaphysical a plague that tore the gay community asunder.
What set Angels apart from other contemporary plays that also dealt with the AIDS epidemic, such as Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart and William Hoffman’s As Is, was Kushner’s eagerness to pull his field of vision back into the heavens. This wasn’t just a story of human wreckage amidst terrifying sickness. It was an indictment and, too often forgotten, a celebration of American ideals while the country was on the brink of an uncertain future. Hence the anxiety implied by Angels’ individual titles, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and the show’s half-portentous, half-winking subtitle: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of Angels, which first aired in 2003 in six parts, was the first opportunity for most of us to witness a staging of Kushner’s sprawling opus. It still holds up as a masterpiece, but one that’s neither fish nor fowl. With his $60 million budget, he was able to dramatize stage directions that could only be approximated in a theater, for better or worse.
Having just seen the revival of Angels on Broadway in a daylong marathon, there’s a nagging sense that Nichols’ adaptation, for all its opulence, is still only a second-best option. He took full advantage of HBO’s flush coffers. When a character (metaphorically) travels to Antarctica, the southernmost continent is implied onstage with audio cues of raging wind and neon accents that turn icy blue. In the HBO special, we’re taken, via green screen, to an exact representation of a barren tundra.
Likewise, a drag-inspired fever dream becomes an opportunity for Nichols to pay homage to Jean Cocteau’s surrealistic Beauty and the Beast. It’s visually striking, no doubt. But does the lily require added layers of gold leaf?
And then there’s the iconic moment when the Angel reveals herself in full to Prior Walter, our protagonist. Nichols presents the exchange with expensive-looking CGI flourish. In the theater, it’s executed with dazzling, if low rent, human puppetry. There’s a less-is-more bravado to a production that can’t hope to fully replicate Kushner’s many flights of fancy on the page. Because of these limitations, his words carry more heft. Nichols takes every opportunity to make obvious what is best left to the imagination.
The upshot, of course, is the HBO special’s cast, which is unimpeachable. Justin Kirk burns with righteous fervor as Prior, who is diagnosed with AIDS before the story unfolds. His loquacious boyfriend Louis, a convincingly terrified Ben Shenkman, flees when the specter of death gets too close. Patrick Wilson (in his breakout role) and the always wonderful Mary-Louise Parker play a Mormon couple adrift in their relationship (he’s gay, by the way) and in New York City (a metropolis far removed from their native Salt Lake City). Al Pacino owns his worst performative tics with a devastating portrayal of Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor. Emma Thompson is resplendent as the titular American angel (and an indefatigable nurse). And then there’s Meryl Streep. Do I need to mention she’s fabulous in a multi-faceted role?
And yet, it’s Jeffrey Wright who steals the show. His acerbic and wise Belize is the pounding heart at the center of this incarnation of Angels. He alone seems in on a grander joke. Belize is both deeply cynical and impossibly kind.
The same could be said of Angels in America. Tony Kushner’s immortal play, no matter how you experience it, still needles and aggravates a sore nerve. Though AIDS isn’t the plague it once was in America (or in rich nations, in general), Roy Cohn’s toxic spirit now haunts the globe, thanks to the current occupant of the White House. Despite a sense of anxiety that has only escalated well into the new millennium, Kushner sides with optimism. The world only spins forward, after all. And the great work begins anew.