The power of prophecy

Mike Nichols' HBO production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" brings the most glorious, most thrilling and most painful work of contemporary American theater into the living room.

By Laura Miller
Published December 6, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Revelation is hard to come by these days. Whatever crisis -- spiritual, political, cultural -- the attacks of Sept. 11 precipitated, so far no American artist has been able to seize or shape it in words or images. The raw, ragged trauma just stands there, unassimilated. Poetry, which once had the job of telling us what was going on around us and what it meant, is, according to Wordsworth, "emotion recollected in tranquillity." But there's not much tranquillity left in which to work, and poetry has dwindled into a tiny backwater of the cultural landscape, populated by cultists.

Theater sometimes seems nearly as esoteric, so for those of us who saw Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" back in the early '90s, the shock was physical. I remember walking with a friend out of a small theater in a dicey neighborhood in San Francisco after seeing the first incarnation of the play's first installment (subtitled "Millennium Approaches"). We felt as galvanized as Kushner's poor, sick character, Prior Walter, when a radiant angel comes crashing through the ceiling of his apartment, promising the advent of "great work."

Those of us leaving the theater, blinking in the sun (it was a matinee), knew that what we'd just seen was a great work, almost a miracle in and of itself, when you consider how mediocre most theater is these days. "Angels in America" was no recollection, though. It spoke to us directly out of what we were living through at that very moment: the friends and lovers lost in their youth to a hideous disease, a government that congratulated itself for its righteousness in turning its back on them, and more -- junk bonds, the Iran-Contra scandal, the feeling that America would never shed its uglier habits because it no longer especially cared to.

Kushner somehow managed to capture all this without waiting for a patch of tranquillity, and the immediacy of "Angels" supercharged its already formidable dramatic power. A tiny percentage of the audience for Mike Nichols' film adaptation for HBO will consist of people who saw the play, and they will probably need to watch the movie once to reconcile it with the stage version and then once more to see it for what it is: not a great film, exactly, but a film that makes the greatness of Kushner's play readily available. Kushner's play is too powerful to allow Nichols' film to have its own independent life, and Nichols knows this. He submits to it, and lets his film become its vessel. That's more than enough. (Part 1 of Nichols' "Angels in America" premieres this Sunday at 8 p.m., with Part 2 premiering next Sunday, Dec. 14. Check listings for a full schedule of repeat broadcasts.)

Why should anyone who hasn't seen the play -- the majority of people reading this -- care about the comparison? Because you will see a very different work from the play that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and enraptured audiences at the dawn of the Clinton presidency. You might not recognize the film you see in the descriptions of the play from that time. Some fairly small alterations have been made in converting "Angels in America" to the screen, but it is the shift in context that makes it something new. The play was urgent and momentous and filled with portent; it looked forward. The film is ruminative and mellowed; it looks back.

The key question is: Does the film also look out and in? At some point, to its readers, "War and Peace" changed from a novel about the Napoleonic wars to a novel about War. Has "Angels" undergone the same transformation? Has it morphed from a story about America in the 1980s to a story about America? It has.

Less grandly put, "Angels in America" is also the story of two men who are diagnosed with AIDS and two relationships that are falling apart. One of the men is a historical figure, the lawyer Roy Cohn, whose public actions Kushner represents with some accuracy and whose private thoughts and feelings the playwright guesses at. Cohn, a protégé of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and a crony of several Republican presidential administrations, is, according to one character, "the polestar of human evil." Roy announces that the accomplishment of which he is proudest is making sure Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair, a feat that required violating an assortment of ethical codes.

Cohn is a scabrous, blaring closet case, a creature of free-floating rage and thunderous vitality -- in short, a plum role. Al Pacino comes just shy of overplaying him, if such a thing is even possible. It's the performance that everyone will exclaim over, even if it's not the best in the film, but that shouldn't detract from its finer points. The strength of it lies in the rare moments when Cohn isn't shouting, when Pacino's staring eyes seem to be trapped in Cohn's face, peering down the length of a long, red-rimmed tunnel. Cohn's view of life is utterly without comfort, yet he clings to it with a bleak zest. Even in dying -- especially in dying -- he is so alive that he fascinates the one character who is his complete opposite, his "negation," the black male nurse Belize (Jeffrey Wright).

Roy's theme, both screeching and percussive, is just one in the symphony of "Angels in America." Characters are paired and divided, providing each other with counterpoints and echoes. The play often puts two conversations happening in different places on the stage at the same time, alternating the focus back and forth in a technique that resembles cinematic crosscutting, although it feels more forceful. Nichols can only crosscut, but some of the impact is still there.

While Roy talks with his own protégé, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a strait-laced Mormon lawyer, in the old Oak Room bar at the Palace Hotel, another character, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), seeks out anonymous sex in Central Park. Roy, who is luring the unwitting Joe into his network of corrupt officials, explains that every young man needs the help of an older man to succeed in their business. When Joe complains of his own father's coldness, Roy replies, "Sometimes a father's love has to be very hard." Meanwhile, Louis asks his pickup, a leather daddy, to "hurt me, make me bleed."

Louis seeks punishment because he's deserted his lover, Prior (Justin Kirk), the other man in the play with AIDS. Theirs is one of the relationships that dissolves in the course of the play. The other is Joe's marriage to Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), a misfit he cherishes because "she was always doing something wrong, like one step out of step. In Salt Lake City that stands out." Harper's out of more than just step now, sitting in their Brooklyn apartment drifting in through Valium-induced dreams. In one of them (a tribute to Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast") she meets Prior (who has been reading a Cocteau biography), who tells her what she already doesn't want to know: Joe is homosexual.

Louis and Roy are Jews obsessed with America. Louis and Joe betray the people they love. Roy and Prior have AIDS. Louis and Harper chatter about global disasters when unable to cope with personal anxiety. Prior and Harper hallucinate -- maybe. Harper receives visits from "Mr. Lies," a member of the International Organization of Travel Agents (IOTA), who promises to take her away to "Antarctica." And Prior hears a beautiful voice, the voice of a "messenger," urging him to "prepare the way."

The increasingly surreal manifestations of this messenger were some of the most thrilling moments in the stage production of "Angels," and also some of the funniest, partly because Prior is such an unlikely and unwilling prophet. In one scene, during a fairly routine doctor's visit, an enormous book on a pillar smashes up through the floor to the sound of a choir and flings itself open to reveal burning alephs, then slams shut and disappears. Stephen Spinella, the original Prior, contracted into his examination gown like a hermit crab, mouth agape at the sight. The nurse, who has turned briefly to write something on his chart, notices nothing.

The same scene on film, achieved with the banal wizardry of CGI, is less audacious. It lacks the magic, the physicality and the hilarity of the original. Likewise, Emma Thompson's angel seems less magnificent that her predecessor because she is not as brazenly implausible; you just never saw stuff like this -- so unironic, so spectacular -- in the serious theater in 1992. As for the message itself, revealed to be something less than revelatory in "Perestroika," the second part of "Angels," Kushner's dramatic powers made you more than half believe he had some kind of answer, that he could see the future.

Now that we've lived through a portion of that future and realized that even after unimaginable catastrophe, history stumbles onward, the sweep and the polemics of "Angels in America" recede. Now the play's human element comes forward, the relationships and the inner struggles of its characters, rather than their causes. "Angels" was always a profoundly human play, but as its timeliness fades, we can see the full dimensions of that quality. Kushner's characters are enmeshed in the difficulty of finding the right balance between personal freedom and their responsibility to others, but their creator recognizes how complicated the task can be.

Louis is wrong to leave Prior, but Joe is wrong to stay with Harper. Yet each man's choice is understandable. Joe, a closeted Republican who has been ghostwriting decisions for the conservative judge he clerks for, has done damaging things, yet he is a kind, decent man. He loves Harper and fears for her, even if he can't give her what she wants: his desire. Louis has better politics, but a weaker character. Yet Louis will find more comfort in life than Joe does, perhaps because he can better live with his own failures. Nobody's fate is simple here, and for such a politically passionate writer, Kushner never resorts to caricature.

What you notice this time around is the epic compassion of "Angels in America," a compassion that extends itself even to Roy. This is why Belize, played in the film, as in the much-celebrated Broadway production, by Jeffrey Wright, is its heart. Wright can manage, better than any of the other performers, the script's vertiginous shifts from conversation to poetry. Every so often, Kushner lets loose with a Whitmanesque flight, as when Belize describes his vision of heaven to Roy, as a place where "all the deities are Creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers." The lines are pretty good, but Wright makes them sound like Shakespeare or Rimbaud; you shiver.

On the other hand, Belize often has the task of pulling the other characters back to earth, which requires him to puncture their airier moments. "If I want to spend my whole lonely life looking after white people, I can get underpaid to do it," he tells Prior (whom he loves dearly) at the end of a hospital visit. Another terrific line, but only a terrific actor can make you believe that both have come from the same, breathing human being, and Wright does just that.

Each of the performances in Nichols' film version -- including Meryl Streep, who plays a rabbi, Joe's mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg -- is a marvel, with the exception of Mary-Louise Parker's Harper. Parker is just too knowing a performer to make Harper's zonked-out naiveté believable. Wilson's Joe is particularly heart-rending. Joe, more than Roy, is Kushner's great creation in "Angels," someone whose fierce struggle to do the right thing is no less moving for being horribly misguided. We can respect Roy's animal commitment to survival, the same way that he learns to admire some particularly virulent pubic lice: "I learned to identify. You know? Determined lowlife. Like me."

Roy makes his politics serve his own needs, but Joe, the play's other conservative, is a true believer, to his own misfortune. When Harper asks him what he prays for, he replies, "I pray for God to crush me, to break me up into little pieces and start all over again." He tells her about a picture he once saw of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and how it reminds him of his own life, his daily battle with desire: "The angel is not human and it holds nothing back. So how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It's not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God's. But you can't not lose."

As unnecessary and destructive as this fight may be, Kushner recognizes it as heroic. He gives Joe that much. He can see the similarities between the courage of Louis' immigrant ancestors, much like his own, and the Mormon pioneers from whom Harper and Joe have descended. And then he can invite Belize to step in and take the swelling music down a peg by reminding us that "some of us didn't exactly choose to migrate." Everyone gets to speak his or her piece, and if "Angels in America" seems a struggle toward Louis' dream of a democracy "shifting downwards and outwards," in which power moves inexorably to the people, he puts that dream in the head of a man unequal to his own love.

"Angels in America" is not what it was in 1992, and not what it will be in 2012. Who knows what we'll see in it 20 or 50 years from today. I suspect that no matter how many times we come back, we'll always find something more, something unexpected, painful, glorious, ugly and awe-inspiring. Something human. Something American.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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