Angels in America: The Dream Life of Angels

10.26.2010

By Aaron Hicklin

The story of how Angels in America became one of the most celebrated plays in American history starts with a dream. It is, of course, Kushner's dream. In it, a dancer he had known at New York University, who had died of AIDS, is cowering in bed as an angel crashes through the ceiling. The dream inspired a poem that Kushner called 'Angels in America.' There were Mormons in it and the angel, but otherwise it bore little resemblance to the play that would eventually emerge, stumbling, unkempt, and rudely ambitious, into the glare of the footlights. For that transformation, we have Oskar Eustis to bless. Back in 1985, Eustis, then resident director at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, was persuaded to see a play by Kushner called A Bright Room Called Day. 'It played off-off-off-off Broadway in a theater that sat 23 people,' according to Spinella, who had appeared in several of Kushner's plays after the two struck up a friendship in college (he tells a nice story of them bonding over a pair of fluorescent pink socks). Eustis squeezed into the last available seat on the last available night and promptly booked the production to play at the Eureka. His relationship with Kushner would become the crucible for turning Angels from an unlovely poem into the epic seven-hour, two-part play that would debut five years later.

On August 2, 1986, Roy Cohn died of AIDS. Kushner, who had been fascinated with Cohn since childhood -- 'because he was Jewish and because it seemed fairly clear, even though I was 10, that he might be gay, and I sort of already knew I was' -- found himself repelled by the victorious, often prurient, tone of the obituaries. 'It was an odd moment for me because I'd hated Roy Cohn all my life, but as a gay man who had lost friends to AIDS and who was seeing this kind of Holocaust visited on my community, it was impossible not to feel angry on Roy's behalf -- on the violation of his privacy, on the gloating.'

Simultaneously, Kushner found himself reading The Book of Mormon 'and getting really fascinated by that.' And then Eustis offered him a commission for a brand-new play. As Spinella recalls, 'Oskar said to Tony, 'We're in San Francisco. Do you have a gay play?' And Tony said, 'Well, I have an idea for a gay play that's going to have Roy Cohn, AIDS, and Mormons.' And Oskar said, 'That sounds great, can we commission it?' ' There was, however, one stipulation: The play would have to have parts for the full company, including several female roles. Enter Harper and Hannah Pitt, stage left. Enter a female angel, stage right.

Angels received its first public airing in May 1990 at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, where Eustis had taken up residence as associate artistic director in 1989. After more than three long years, it was still very much a 'work in progress.' Sylvie Drake, writing in the Los Angeles Times, admired it immensely but found it 'in severe need of a ruthless editor.' Kushner himself, before the play's opening, admitted that it was 'only half there, very impressionistic, and not straightforward.' The rewrites on Part 1: Millennium Approaches would continue through rehearsals for the London run (Donnellan later described their working relationship as 'volatile') and even up through the first week of performance in New York. Dave Harris, house manager for that production in 1993, recalls the running length shrinking as the first week progressed. 'When it came in, it was still undergoing significant changes, and my recollection is that the first preview was about four hours and 25 minutes,' he says. 'Needless to say, that's a long time to hold the audience.'

As the play's running time was tightened, however, the standing ovations began -- and didn't stop throughout the play's run. For Kushner, who set part 1 in 1986, at the height of the Reagan era, the play's Broadway debut had the atmosphere of 'a rock concert, because there was enormous joy that a Democrat was in office. You got to go into a room full of 900 strangers and lament what we'd just been through. The first phase of a war had come to a truce, and you could actually stop and reflect on it.'

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