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Theater & Dance

Angels in America: The Dream Life of Angels


Has any play in the history of American theater wrung such tears from its audience as Angels in America? For those who saw it in the early 1990s -- it was first performed as a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles 20 years ago next month -- Tony Kushner's epic meditation on the American body politic was as much an exercise in mourning as it was a piece of theater. 'On any given night you would hear wrenching sobs from the audience,' recalls Marcia Gay Harden, who played Harper Pitt, the pill-popping Mormon wife of closeted lawyer Joe. 'I think that made more palpable and tangible the experience of being there, because there was an active healing going on in the audience. People would sit down with their parents and say, 'Before this play begins, I want to tell you that I'm gay,' or 'Before this play begins, I want to tell you that I'm dying of AIDS.''

It's a powerful image -- scenes of affirmation and expiation within the auditorium coexisting with scenes of affirmation and expiation on stage. Nothing like it had been seen on Broadway. Not much like it has been seen since. It was gay, and it dealt with AIDS, but it went places gay plays and AIDS dramas hadn't gone before. It included Mormons, an uncompromising depiction of anal sex, and Roy Cohn -- the notorious counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy during the Communist witch-hunts. London's National Theatre declared it one of the 10 greatest plays of the century. The literary critic Harold Bloom included it in his Western Canon, one of only a handful of 20th-century plays so honored. It won the Pulitzer and a pair of Tonys -- one for each of the two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.

'The number of people I've spoken to who say that Angels changed their life -- I've heard that so many times,' says the actor Stephen Spinella, who won a Tony in 1994 for his performance as Prior Walter. 'It cracked a lot of things open, and people felt like for the first time they were sitting in the theater watching people tell the truth about the way the world works.'

The sense of catharsis and revelation was not limited to America. Declan Donnellan recalls similar scenes at London's Royal National Theatre, for which he directed a ballyhooed production of Angels in 1992. 'We'd get so many people who had AIDS come to see the show, and that was very harrowing for them,' he says. 'A lot of young gay people now can't really understand what struggles were fought 20, 25 years ago. It's like talking to young Russian people who have no real concept about the Soviet period.'

Yet the play's consideration of AIDS doesn't appear to have dated it. If anything Angels has cemented its reputation with time. An HBO adaptation in 2003 won five Golden Globes and a record-breaking 11 Emmys. And when the Denver Post recently polled 177 playwrights, directors, actors, and sundry theater professionals to ascertain the 10 most important American plays, Angels came in second, behind Death of a Salesman, and ahead of A Streetcar Named Desire. In the last year alone, new productions have been staged in cities as disparate as Sydney, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. In October, the Signature Theatre Company will stage the first major New York City production since the play's original run ended in 1994, directed by Rent's Michael Greif.

Donnellan, who mainly directs Shakespeare, has a simple explanation for why Kushner's play has stood the test of time so well. 'I always saw Angels in America as a play about love,' he says. 'I think it's a classic, and it's a classic because it keys into great truths about human nature that are not going to be changed by a general election. For me, the experience of Angels in America has to do with what it's like to be Prior betrayed by Louis or what it's like to be Louis betraying Prior. We inhabit both those people, and whether you are gay or straight, it doesn't particularly matter -- it's the betrayal of love that counts.'

Spinella concurs. 'It's not a gay play, in an odd way -- it's about the American character. Tony just happened to write it from the point of view of gay people.'

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.'

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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