Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is a remarkable, miraculous epic whose story and themes sprawl from how the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s affected the gay male community, political corruption sourced at the judicial level (and the open relationship between morality and law), religious stasis. It’s remarkable because its heady content doesn’t come off as pretentious or dreadfully dense, and it doesn’t pontificate–it’s a play with fair and deep conviction. It’s miraculous because it fleshes out marginalized characters (a Jew, an African-American drag queen, Mormons, a gay man living with AIDS, a closeted and dangerously homophobic lawyer dying of AIDS, a schizophrenic woman having a nervous breakdown) in painstakingly vivid and believable ways through a drama that swims in a liminal moat of realism and fantastical myth, all the while undercutting what Americanness is all about by means of metaphor and allusion and intersectionality.
Amazon summary: “Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is that rare entity: a work for the stage that is profoundly moving yet very funny, highly theatrical yet steeped in traditional literary values, and most of all deeply American in its attitudes and political concerns. In two full-length plays–Millennium Approaches and Perestroika–Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world. Prior is a man living with AIDS whose lover Louis has left him and become involved with Joe, an ex-Mormon and political conservative whose wife, Harper, is slowly having a nervous breakdown. These stories are contrasted with that of Roy Cohn (a fictional re-creation of the infamous American conservative ideologue who died of AIDS in 1986) and his attempts to remain in the closet while trying to find some sort of personal salvation in his beliefs.”
If the novel’s hoarse mantra is to “show, don’t tell” then the play’s is quite the opposite: the medium demands engaging telling through dialogue. Kushner creates conversations so lyrical you sometimes hold your breath–they sweep and spin, the ideas swirling like eddies–it’s electric and “drunkening.” He somehow masterfully moves between tones: haunting, humorous, etc. And the story’s construction–the lives all weaved into one frayed tapestry coming apart at the same time (these lives united and destroyed by AIDS), the magical hallucinations that bridge worlds disparate–somehow doesn’t collapse; its passion and profundity never peter out.
I can’t recommend enough the HBO miniseries, adapted from the play by Tony Kushner himself and filmed by Mike Nichols. It retains the play’s way of complicating identity by having the same actor play multiple parts–Meryl Streep plays a rabbi, a Mormon mother, a ghost, etc. I can guarantee that it’ll make you think, if it doesn’t also leave you speechless and somewhat dazed.
Posted by James