Part I: Millennium Approaches

Part II: Perestroika

Royal George Theatre Center

Steven M.L. Aronson: Is there anything you’re still afraid of, aside from the things we’re all afraid of like death?

Roy Cohn: I’m not even afraid of that.

The above exchange was published in Interview magazine in September of 1981. Five years later, Cohn–legendary lawyer and onetime counsel to red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy–was dead. Of AIDS, though to the end he insisted his problem was liver cancer. Surely AIDS was not what Cohn envisioned when he denied fearing his mortality. AIDS was a homosexual illness, and Cohn never acknowledged being a homosexual–not only because gays were despised in right-wing circles but because being gay meant being a powerless victim, and that was something the combative commie chaser never allowed himself to be called.

In Perestroika–the second half of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s dense, allusive “gay fantasia on national themes”–it’s 1986, and a fictionalized but very credible Cohn faces his imminent demise. Liver cancer or not, he’s acquired a cache of AZT, the restricted-access drug used to treat those AIDS patients lucky or well connected enough to get it. When his nurse, a black queen named Belize, asks Cohn to share his stash, Cohn refuses, instead hurling a barrage of obscenities and racial slurs until the even-tempered Belize succumbs to his own rage and prejudice and calls Cohn a “kike.” Only then does the perverse Cohn–Jewish homosexual ally of gay-hating anti-Semites–offer the life-prolonging medicine to his antagonist.

Raunchy, ugly, and hilarious all at once, the scene carries a weight far beyond its surface conflict. It’s one of a series of variations Kushner spins on the biblical tale of Jacob’s battle with a mysterious stranger. Matching if not besting a supernatural opponent in an all-night wrestling match (during which he suffers a broken thigh), Jacob refuses to let his foe go until the nameless man gives him a blessing; the stranger congratulates Jacob on his strength and courage and bestows upon him a new name–Israel. In The Book of J, Harold Bloom offers several possible identities for Jacob’s angel: Gabriel, or a guardian angel who transfers his own name onto Jacob, or maybe Sammael, angel of death. In any case, Bloom says, the episode clearly identifies the nature of the blessing that Jacob and so many other Hebrew heroes sought: more life.

Written, like the books of the Bible, in response to a sense of apocalyptic political and spiritual upheaval, Angels in America is a prayer for more life in a world overrun by death. From his own perspective as a gay man who’s seen extraordinary suffering–and who knows many others around the globe have seen and endured far worse–Kushner casts a visionary gaze on a “ruined paradise” beset by AIDS, plague, war, genocide, and environmental destruction. His epic tragicomedy, two three-and-a-half-hour plays distinct from but dependent on each other, portrays a collection of individuals wrestling with ambiguous angels: guardians, messengers, and bringers of death all at once. Brandishing the words “divine” and “fabulous” in both their campy and majestic meanings, Kushner poses a set of conflicts between his heroes and the larger-than-life forces sent to test them. And from his characters’ struggles, Kushner finds hope in human beings’ strength, humor, imagination, and “addiction to being alive.”

Most of Kushner’s angels are human; one of the play’s great accomplishments is that it defies the negativism of our cynical age to remind us that some people really are angelic in their loyalty and dedication. A few of the angels are divine–or seem to be, since it’s never definitively established whether the winged visitor who crashes through a bedridden AIDS patient’s ceiling in Angels’ first half, Millennium Approaches, is truly heaven-sent or only the dream of a lovelorn gay man recently deserted by his lover (Perestroika’s booming overture, by composer Michael Ward, opens with a musical quotation from “The Man That Got Away”). But that ambivalence, sure to annoy audiences who dislike unanswered questions in their entertainment (better they should stick to Joseph and Les Miz), is an essential part of Angels–both the script (somewhat revised from the published version) and the Chicago production, deftly directed by Michael Mayer with a spare simplicity that highlights the characters’ words and performed with passionate conviction by a superb cast.

Angels in America isn’t a religious text; it’s a playwright’s fantasy, like all plays. But few playwrights today–as fine as some of them are–have chosen to share fantasies as exhilarating and moving as Kushner’s. The sprawling, magical late romances of Shakespeare are the closest comparison, with their improbable stories of ruptured families and sexual jealousy, exotic locations and special effects, image-rich poetry and over-the-top allegory.

Take the plot of Angels, a contrived tapestry of interlocking narratives concerning two couples and their friends and family. Prior Walter and Louis Ironson are gay lovers in mid-80s New York, the descendants of religious refugees (Louis is Jewish, and Prior’s family came over on the Mayflower) cut off from their heritages by the distractions of modern secular life. Joe Pitt and his wife Harper are Mormons, whose ancestors battled persecution and danger to trek from upstate New York to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. (“That’s the joke,” says the irreverent Harper. “They drag you on your knees through hell and when you get there the water is undrinkable.”) But their marriage is collapsing under the weight of Joe’s emerging homosexuality and Harper’s emotional instability (which is what attracted the messianic Joe to her in the first place). When Prior comes down with AIDS, Louis deserts him and takes up with Joe, who’s just starting to come out of the closet; their parallel abandonment brings Harper and Prior together, first in astral journeys and later at the Mormon visitors’ center in midtown Manhattan.

All four of these characters wrestle with angels of death, emerging wounded but strengthened. Prior is visited by the heavenly guardian of America, who crashes through his bedroom ceiling and appoints him a reluctant prophet in the astonishing coup de theatre that brings Millennium Approaches to its cliffhanger conclusion. Harper, anguished by Joe’s growing alienation and her own childlessness, takes out-of-body trips to Antarctica, whose fragile ozone layer is likened to a gathering of angels protecting the earth; there she meets Mr. Lies, a cool cat in shades and beret who is, of course, the fallen angel Lucifer. For Joe, death means the mortal sin his sexuality has represented to him since childhood, when he responded erotically to a picture of Jacob wrestling with the beautiful angel (don’t those children’s-Bible-story, illustrators know what they’re doing?). His torment finally explodes in a fistfight with his new lover, Louis (the badly choreographed fight scene is the production’s one jarring failure). And Louis, whose lofty leftist rhetoric recalls Kushner’s own in various interviews, struggles with guilt and self-loathing, exacerbated rather than assuaged by hot sex with a Mormon Republican lawyer–“an ideological leather bar,” Louis calls it.

The political and mythic resonances in the simultaneously ribald and rhapsodic script make the main plot rise above soap opera. Intersecting that story is Joe’s friendship with Roy Cohn, a “saint of the right” who experiences supernatural visitations from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the communist spy he manipulated into the electric chair through unethical dealings in the judge’s chambers. Neither man knows the other is gay (Joe is so square he doesn’t even recognize a reference to the Beatles’ White Album). Epitomizing the malevolent hypocrisy of Reaganism (whose imminent comeback, with Ollie North’s Senate race and Ed Meese’s reemergence as a gay-rights foe, makes Angels a timely offering this fall), Cohn is linked to Prior by his nurse Belize, the angel of mercy whose devotion to Prior is sorely tested by Prior’s assertion that he’s been named a prophet. (Prior’s angelic encounter, like Jacob’s, has left him lame: is it just coincidence that five of the play’s central characters are a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple, just like the notorious joke told by Reagan’s interior secretary James Watt?) Prior’s research into angelology brings him into contact with Joe’s flinty mother, Hannah, another angel, who moves to New York to save her gay son and ends up nurturing the abandoned Harper.

Dense material, this; and I haven’t even discussed the heavenly council of angels who summon Prior to their chamber to urge an end to human progress, which has so catastrophically outpaced humanity’s ability to deal with it. Or the aged Bolshevik Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (a character familiar from Kushner’s Slavs!), whose speech against unplanned perestroika reminds us of the millennial implications of the fall of the Soviet empire. Or the wagon-train diorama whose pioneer mannequins come to life. Or the farcical yet incredibly touching speech that opens Millennium Approaches, delivered by a rabbi over the coffin of Louis’s immigrant grandmother, recalling the Russian Jews’ migration to “the melting pot where nothing melted” and urging us to recognize that we live in a world where great voyages no longer exist except inside us. If that message sounds familiar, maybe it’s because it reminds us of The Wizard of Oz–there’s no place like home and all that. That’s no accident; on several occasions Angels cites the Judy Garland film, a landmark of camp counterculture as well as part of our national mythology, to remind us that happiness is in our own backyard.

In conventional terms, Angels’s biggest weakness is character development; especially in the more schematic Perestroika, psychological credibility takes a backseat to the philosophical concerns that dictate the intricate plot. (Viewers are likely to split in their preference for the starker and more soap-operatic Millennium or the more extravagantly fantastical Perestroika.) An audacious amalgam of gay iconography, Jewish and Mormon mysticism, political diatribe, cosmic allegory, sensuous poetry, and bawdy comedy, Angels is consciously American in the eclectic way it juxtaposes ideas, characters, and moods; it’s also fiendishly difficult to pull off, since it’s an actor-driven piece whose special effects make elaborate technical demands. The Chicago production’s finely balanced ensemble generates the sense of cultural and emotional turbulence needed to produce the sorrow/joy/terror/delight that makes this script unique among all the American plays I’ve seen. All honor to their names: Kate Goehring and Robert Sella as the addled visionaries Harper and Prior, Peter Birkenhead and Philip Earl Johnson as Louis and Joe, Barbara Robertson as Hannah, Reg Flowers as Belize, Carolyn Swift as the angel, and Jonathan Hadary, who restores to the showpiece role of Roy Cohn the brilliant comic rhythms that Ron Leibman’s brassy, Jerry Lewis-style excess swallowed up on Broadway.

The actors all play one or more smaller parts in addition to their principal roles: that’s one of the ways Kushner reminds us that Angels in America is first and foremost live theater, whose power derives as much from our connection with the performers as from our interest in the story. When Birkenhead and Johnson join in an explosively erotic seminude embrace, then quickly drag their mattress off the stage during a scene change, we are reminded that these are actors doing a job–which makes us appreciate the emotional intensity of their scenes all the more. And when Swift as the winged angel “flies” on clearly visible wires, or when Goehring walks over a parachute to represent her hallucinated journey to Antarctica, the effect is more magical than if the mechanics weren’t evident–because of the passionate conviction the actors bring to every moment they’re onstage. Their efforts are perfectly supported by set designer David Gallo, costume designer Michael Krass, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, cosmetician Randy Houston Mercer, and sound designer Rob Milburn, whose work evokes the tacky spectacle of Charles Ludlam’s theater of the ridiculous. This is in keeping with Kushner’s intention, which is to honor the gay theater of the past while transcending it with a new, truly universal “theater of the fabulous.” With its moral urgency, redemptive humor, grand intellectual sweep, and ecstatic intensity, Angels achieves its author’s aim; this is wonderful, and wonder-full, work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.