Angels in America: The Dream Life of Angels

10.26.2010

By Aaron Hicklin

It's hard to remember today how radical Kushner's portrayal of gay men and the AIDS crisis was for its time. 'Although you could put gay characters on stage, they had to be entirely, 100% positive, and Tony broke that,' says Donnellan. 'His characters are not marionettes spouting the political certainties of a writer. They are alive, and they are ambivalent, and that's what's very powerful about them. And I think Tony was very, very brave at the time to write a play in which one gay man was betraying another. Even that, at that banal level, was revolutionary.'

For Kushner, the impetus came in part from the disparity between, on the one hand, the world of movies and plays 'where people just automatically knew how to take care of a catastrophically ill person and didn't feel frightened and didn't run away,' and, on the other, watching people in the real world falter through the crisis. 'By the late '80s, I thought, OK, maybe we're at a point now where I could actually venture to show someone really screwing up and doing what you weren't supposed to do -- which was walk out on your boyfriend when your boyfriend got sick. And I think that was a hard thing for a lot of people, but to my great relief the community and the country at large took it in and understood it, so the play did not come across as homophobic.'

'History is about to crack open -- Millennium approaches,' the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg tells Roy Cohn toward the end of part 1. Twenty years later, separated by the end of the Cold War, September 11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the steady eclipse of American economic might by China, history has, indeed, cracked open. Kushner has frequently been singled out for his prescience, but Angels was more than prescient, it was elemental, reflecting the ongoing struggle with America's destiny. Over the years, many of the play's scenes have seemed to illuminate the national character, but one that feels as pointedly relevant today is Roy Cohn's self-justification for abusing the law: 'You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective? Make the law or be subject to it?' The inverse relationship Cohn draws between being 'nice' and being 'effective' is the kind of false dichotomy that you can hear any day of the week in the boardrooms of conglomerates or on the hectoring, bullying talk shows on Fox. The success of Angels in countering this narrow, self-interested view of the world with one based on compassion and community is Kushner's great triumph and the reason we still need him.

Nevertheless, Kushner -- ever the perfectionist -- is still not sure that he's done editing the play yet. 'Part 2: Perestroika is a big shaggy thing, and I feel guilty now every time I go to a play and see it has no intermission. I think, Great, I can still get home and watch 30 Rock. And then I think, God, I'd never let anyone out of the theater that quickly.'

The new Signature Theater Company production of Angels in America is playing at The Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, New York (Tel: 212 244
7529) until February 20, 2011.

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