There’s a certain connectedness in the fact that HBO’s big production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America debuts after the season finale of Carnivale. Both works traffic in hallucinogenic visions and the blurring between fantasy and reality, both center around outsiders struggling to survive overwhelming hardship, both feature a seemingly conservative (but at root hypocritical) human monster in the center of the action.
My reason for even bringing up the surface similarities between Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning two-night drama and a pulpish cable fantasy soap is to note how much the stuff of revelation has become a part of our teevee entertainment. After watching grubby Ben Harper battle ineffectively against his assigned role as prophet warrior, do we still have room for poor dementia-ridden Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) and his aural visitations by the angels? Once we’ve experienced Brother Justin’s travails in a Depression Era asylum, what do we do with scabrous AIDS-ridden Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) babbling on the floor to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep)? First half of Angels (first broadcast last Sunday, with the second half scheduled for this coming weekend) ends with a winged messenger crashing through the ceiling of Prior’s city apartment? Fine. So how’s that wacky God gonna appear to Joan of Arcadia this week?
But if the supernatural visitations of this ten-year-old play have become commonplace in the intervening years, the character drama hasn’t. Kushner’s dialog – packed with unapologetic extended dramatic monologues and poetic flights of fancy – moves from yowls of rage to laugh-out-loud gotchas, and the actors in Mike Nichols’ teevee adaptation handle the kaleidoscopic structure without any flubs. I especially enjoyed Jeffrey Wright’s unreal travel agent in his interactions with mentally ill pill popper Harper (Mary-Louise Parker); there’s a vivid wit and sadness to the scenes they have together that’s truly striking.
As a six-hour-plus dramatic extravaganza, Angels isn’t easy to summarize. The multi-layered plot circles around a cluster of characters:
former Joseph McCarthy hatchetman Cohn, stricken with AIDS but unwilling to acknowledge the fact (to Cohn, to admit what he has is to give up years of accumulated political power);
Prior Walter, who’s been abandoned by his lover Louis (Ben Shenkman) and who is seeing visions in the throes of his own AIDS-related dementia;
Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a closeted Mormon who’s attracted to Louis in part because his guilt-ridden self-loathing mirrors Joe’s; and
Harper, Joe’s wife, who regularly checks out on her passion-free relationship through pills and free-form fantasizing.
At least three of the characters experience visions in the first part of the play, but only Prior gets to see the prophesizing angel (Emma Thompson), whose coming is announced by two Dickensian ancestral ghosts.
Kushner’s drama is set in Reagan Era America, so there’s a lot of talk about impending millennium in the piece. If that aspect appears a bit dated (so what’d the millennium really bring us? More fear than we had before?), the basic issues of personal responsibility (note how Louis, the most loud-spoken liberal in the play, is the one who leaves his lover when the going gets tough), disconnectedness and the American promise remain relevant. As does the willful blinkeredness of the people who govern us, unfortunately. (Cohn, who in real life died from AIDS-related complications, is the primary exemplar of this: unwilling to publicly admit what he has because he knows it’ll compromise his power base, he hides behind a cover story of lung cancer.) For all the grimness in its storyline, there’s a fallible human vibrancy in Angels that calculatedly mopey fare like Carnivale can’t even come close to capturing.
Great play; really good production; can’t wait for part two.