Big Drama on the Small Screen: Angels Should Be Seen by All

Normal service is interrupted this week by a momentous event.

Far be it from me to embrace theater’s mortal enemy-television-but this is different. On Dec. 7, HBO airs the first three-hour installment of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America , and Part II follows a week later. It’s a bold and magnificent achievement that deserves to be seen by everyone.

The unforgettable play that blew our minds in its yearning for some answer and salvation at the close of the 1980’s AIDS era and the heartless Reagan years-“Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Reagan’s children”-still speaks to us with awesome power. There will be uproar at the TV version, no doubt. Mike Nichols’ film of the original play, starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep-who, along with the rest of the cast, give tremendous performances-amounts to a historic event just as CBS bowed cravenly before censorship of its innocuous little docudrama about President Reagan.

Over a decade ago, many of us came reeling out of the opening of Angels in America at the Walter Kerr Theatre convinced we’d witnessed some kind of miracle. Mr. Kushner’s epic of murderous days is still the finest drama of our time-speaking to us of an entire era of life and death as no other play in memory. In its sweep and imagination, it defines the collapse of a moral universe during the Reagan era and now transcends its specific time as a modern morality play about an America Lost, perhaps to be regained.

Mr. Kushner’s colossal sense of loss and betrayal and longed-for saving grace amounts to a fantastic journey of the heart and mind crying out against the disintegration of tolerance amidst burning urban landscapes and certain eternal dreams. It’s a pretty funny piece, too. How we still need it! Angels in America ranks as nothing less than one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century.

The Mike Nichols film version made me a bit nervous at first, I must say. Though Mr. Kushner has written the screen adaptation, how could the film live up to the original play-and more, the experience of it? One of the reasons I love the theater is because it isn’t film. Very literal medium, film; very passive. Movies do all the work for us. But absolutely anything is possible in the theater, provided we imagine it. In theater, it’s O.K. if we see the wires.

Greetings, Prophet;

The great work begins:

The Messenger has arrived.

So go the apocalyptic words of the angel who comes crashing through the ceiling over the bed of the orgasmic, dying Prior. The now-famous greeting of the fantasy-redeemer brings Part I to its tumultuous close. In the film version, the angel has no choice but to become a special effect-faux magic-even though Emma Thompson’s bossy Botticelli angel is wonderful to behold. But an angel with wires is true theatrical magic, for we see the wires and still remain awestruck by the angel in blinding white light.

The mad, feverish visions of prophetdom, even a zonked-out character’s trip to clean, empty Antarctica, were a mark of the stage version’s naïve, imaginative simplicity. For all its intimate sense of national corruption and great sorrow, the play possessed an unabashed, joyful theatricality. The fantasy sequences of the film-cued by Thomas Newman’s music-are disconcerting at first, even “arty.” (And Mr. Nichols is no Cocteau.) But no matter. The central message of a heartbreaking journey toward change and understanding is told as the Millennium dawns. Mr. Nichols’ admirable achievement is to have given the playwright’s articulate, rich imagination full rein, and the entire ensemble is superb.

Mr. Pacino, who’s been known to overact just a little, is mesmerizing as the prince of right-wing darkness, Roy Cohn, dying of AIDS in a Manhattan hospital. Even the iconic, pathetic Cohn becomes a tragic figure-a mere human being-for whom kaddish is recited, though the prayer for him is punctuated with a parting “You sonuvabitch!” I had not quite realized until now the symbolic role blood plays here: blood feuds, blood ties, life’s blood. Mr. Pacino’s showdown of bullying denial with his doctor-for-hire (James Cromwell, exactly right in a cameo role) is astonishing in its immense, twisted logic and self-deceit; the scenes between the hallucinatory Cohn dosed with AZT and his cool, black, gay nurse, Belize-a sly angel in disguise-are simply tremendous. Jeffrey Wright-the only holdover from the stage version’s memorable alumni-reprises the role that made his name.

Watch out for Meryl Streep doubling as a rabbi of the old shtetl school! Why is she cast as a rabbi? Why not ? She plays him wonderfully. So, too, Ms. Streep’s sensible, severe Mormon, Hannah Pitt, who turns out to be the unexpectedly generous grace note of the piece. Her closeted son, Joe, the Republican lawyer and Cohn protégé, is played with agonized brilliance by Patrick Wilson. Mary-Louise Parker is Joe’s unhappy wife and Valium fantasist, Harper. (The role was played in the stage version by the then little-known Marcia Gay Harden, and the sympathetic Ms. Parker is exceptionally fine.) In another major achievement, Ben Shenkman is perfect as Louis, the whining, liberal weasel. (There! Mr. Kushner is equally “unfair” to both left and right). And Justin Kirk’s dying, possessed Prior could scarcely be better.

“The stiffening of your penis is of no consequence!” the angel admonishes Prior, who’s at the point of mysterious orgasmic ecstasy again.

“Well, maybe not to you ,” he replies indignantly.

Angels in America can be desperately funny sometimes, and it is cradled in so much sorrow that tears are our only response. It is a masterpiece of ideas and emotion about a few people we come to know who live in times of plague and guilt, of faith and revelation and longed-for change in turbulent, apocalyptic America. In the essentials, it’s about love.

The final moments are a form of blessing offered by Prior, who gathers with his friends by the stone angel of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park whose water mythically heals. A decade ago, I took it as a sign of hope and reconciliation in the Godless wreckage. And now the world seems no better, hurtling toward what?

“And I bless you: More Life ,” the dying Prior reminds us.

Then let there be more life, life better lived.

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all,” Prior tells us by the stone angel, “and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

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Big Drama on the Small Screen: Angels Should Be Seen by All