PART 1: LES MISERABLES
The Angels are very at home in New York. Everyone waited for months after hearing the praise about the stagings of Angels in America in San Franciso, Los Angeles and London. Even the choice of showcase became news. The New York Times ran an article about the snubbing of the Public Theater in favor of a prominent Broadway house. The play lived-up to expectations and received numerous accolades (Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, even the Pulitzer). The New York producers decided to divide the epic in two. (The entire play runs over 5 hours) Part I is titled Millennium Approaches. Part II, Perestroika, is scheduled to open next week. I decided to bear witness later than most, the opening was a few months ago. I assumed that since the fervor was at a lull, in anticipation of the second opening, attendance would be slack. I was mistaken. There was not a seat to be had. The Angels have some staying power. The superscript of the title reads "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes". It is impossible to examine this work without an understanding of the plight of the homosexual community in the United States in the post Reagan era. This is what makes this play an important period piece. It is also what undercuts it attempts at profundity. The Angels will not be around forever; maybe not even till the end of the Clinton era.
The play is far from revolutionary in its composition. It is structured as a television Soap Opera with three intertwining linear narratives. Two of these plot lines revolve around couples in which one partner is unable to cope with the responsibilities of caring for an ill spouse. In one case the husband is actually culpable for his wife psychosis because of an inability to admit that he is a homosexual. The other pair, a male gay couple, is faced with the tragedy of AIDS made even more horrific by the test of moral strength which the disease-free partner fails miserably. The characters are defined by their problems. These are embodiments of torment, not tormented souls. It is difficult to conceive of these people divorced from their hardships. They are metonyms for the problems themselves. Without AIDS the gay couple consists of a man who likes to complain and a man who likes to dress up. Without the issue of the husband's sexuality the other couple metamorphoses into an ambitious Yuppie man. The woman disappears. She does not exist. Her schizophrenia and drug abuse are inextricably linked to the husband's feigning straitness. The playwright, Tony Kushner, fails to conceive of woman outside of being foils to illustrate male problems. Aside of the madwoman their is a generic nurse, a generic mother, a generic real-estate woman, another madwoman, a cameo by Ethel Rosenberg and an angel, complete with gossamer wings. Women are more substantive and in control when they play men (e.g. Kathleen Chalfant's Rabbi Chemelwitz and Henry or Marcia Gay Harden's Martin Heller). In short there are inconsequential woman who buttress men who represent recognizable hardships of being male homosexuals. It is no wonder Mr. Kushner felt the need to tell more than one story. Neither couple could sustain treatment as a full length play. The third narrative breaks the couple mold. It features an historical figure and not a product of Mr. Kushner's imagination. The enigmatic, controversial Roy Cohn rears his ugly head. Ron Leibman's brilliant portrayal certainly throws Mr. Cohn's persona into the limelight. There is a more central reason Ron as Roy steals the show. He is the only primary character who has life outside of his affliction. In fact the two plagues of his life, AIDS and disbarment, are introduced late in the game. Here is a man who lives and breaths outside of the issues. He is a loathsome paper-pushing Richard III. He is detestable, captivating and, dramatically speaking, alive. This devil is what drives Angels.
His story also makes the most poignant statement about the travails of being gay in America. His ruthless paranoia is rooted in a survival strategy. It is best illustrated when he threatens to destroy his physician of 30 years for even associating the name Roy Cohn with AIDS, and by default homosexuality. The mask of the demon slips and we see a lonely scared man determined to instill terror in everything around him to avoid even an appearance of his own fear. His bravado in claiming that he alone is the reason Ethel Rosenberg was sent to the electric chair betrays a man filled pathological self-hatred. He rants about the fact that she violated a wide-ranging sense of "trust". She was a traitor to her country and he made sure she died. Mr. Cohn delivers this speech in the midst of trying to convince a young lawyer, whom he has seduced, to risk his career and commit a felony on his behalf. Given Roy's civic virtue one ponders over the reasons for Ms. Rosenberg's death. It appears more likely that in killing this communist, Jewish, woman in the mid-1950s Mr. Cohn was somehow establishing his own credentials with the mainstream heterosexual goyem. It further begs the question of what kind of world could create such an alienated desperate man? Roy is never sympathetic but bigoted societal attitudes about his sexuality help illuminate his tragic disposition. It is impossible to feel sorry for the him, given the extent of his evil, but it is difficult not to empathize with the isolation of any gay power-broker. It also raises questions about the push behind the disbarment proceedings (which incidentally succeeded - not in part I). Mr. Cohn's story has all the ingredients for a solid full length play. It is unfortunate that Mr. Kushner placed it amidst all the stale one dimensional couples and his ill-conceived metaphysical musings.
Angels borrows from the church as well as television. Mr. Kushner feels the need to evoke the spirits and be long-winded. This is an old Kushnerian tradition. Anyone who can recall the Devil appearing after many tedious moments in A Bright Room Called Day can vouch for both. Here the playwright seems to have discovered heaven or at least 19th century conceptions of how benevolent spirits appeared. There are bright flashes of light, thunder and lightening, a chorus with voices swelling and at last an angel with gossamer wings. It is difficult to know what the author is trying to say. In Mr. Kushner's defense this was only Part 1. It was, however, three hours long. Hopefully something will occur in the remaining hours which will clear up this metaphysical mish-mash. A Bright Room Called Day is evidence for pessimism but one must have faith. That play also included time travel and re-incarnated apparitions which Kushner re-evokes to no avail, again. There are spirits from ages past! Why? Maybe Kushner knows but it is doubtful any audiences members share his private metaphysical cosmology. Obscurity is the hallmark of most religions but it is debatable whether that cryptic sense can be channeled into a positive theatrical experience. Certainly Mr. Kushner has failed to prove the possibility.
The playwright parts ways with the most of the clergy in that he demonstrates a sense of humor. There are numerous moments of genuine levity throughout the performance. Mr. Kushner has a stand-up comic's sense of a well timed, one-liner. In addition there are several name jokes. One of the protagonists in Prior William. He is visited by ghosts his prior ancestors, aptly named Prior: one from the Dark Ages and one from the Age of Enlightenment. It is all very amusing. It is unfortunate that blandness seemed to be a family trait. None of the Priors from any age had anything to say. It must be pointed out, once again, that this was only Part I. Perhaps in Part II all the Priors will blossom into a irresistible trio that will forever be emblazoned in the consciousness of American audiences. Once again, we must have faith in order to safeguard our belief in those professional accolade-givers (theatrical institutions of great esteem, well-regarded critics of stage & writing, people in the know…).
Part 1 could turn anyone who follows the theatrical Zeitgeist into a unbeliever. The play is badly written. All the acclaim and support casts a dark shadow over the state of the stage. One can be generous and say that the need for a play depicting the plight of male homosexuals overrode the breath of knowledge about what makes good theater. Certainly the gay community has suffered greatly from a dreadful plague and widespread discrimination; often officially sanctioned. (As I write the Senate of the United States has passed a bill which states that homosexuality is incompatible with military life and can be grounds for dismissal from the armed services). Given these harsh realities the arrival of a play depicting gay men in a positive light might serve some benevolent social function. In the early stages of the AIDS epidemic the play AS IS, a saccharine portrayal of a gay couple facing the disease, served the cause well in heightening awareness and generating sympathy. No one treated AS IS as great art. Perpetrating a lie of that dimension would be an insult to the intelligence of theater-goers but, even worse, it would patronize those victims of the disease by making their suffering a fashion statement. That is precisely what is occurring with Angels In America. There is something lurking behind those gossamer wings which has a malevolent face. Hopefully Part II will redeem my faith. The title is ominous. "Perestroika" is taken from Michael Gorbachev's late 1980s book about the new "openness" of the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that Mr. Kushner meant to be ironic. His work has, thus far, never plumbed that deep. More likely the book and the phrase were pivotal at the time he was writing Part II. Events overtook Mr. Gorbachev. It is doubtful anyone would claim Perestroika has any currency in the remnants of the Soviet State. It was merely a vacant political catchword which played at exposing a horrible crisis; significant only in the context of a brief tumultuous period. Perhaps Mr. Kushner should saved this title for Part I.