Angels in America

Angels in America

“History is about to crack wide open…Millennium Approaches!" announces the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg to the writhing body of Roy Cohn (notorious crony to Hoover, McCarthy and Nixon) who is dying of AIDS. It is one of countless brilliant moments in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, now unevenly adapted for the screen by the playwright and director Mike Nichols. Meryl Streep and Al Pacino bring their star-power to the ill-fated pair and lead a strong cast, with Emma Thompson playing an angel and Jeffrey Wright reprising his Tony Award winning role as Cohn’s nurse, Belize.

Instantly recognized as dramatic literature, Kushner’s play, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," was socially potent when first published in 1993, just after the AIDS epidemic was reaching a peak in the United States.The seven-hour, two-part ("Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika") opus was mounted in brilliant stage productions on both coasts (San Francisco and New York) and a year later went on tour.

Kushner’s scalding polemic indicted Reagan-era homophobia, medical apathy and social ignorance. Like Ibsen and Odets, the playwright captured a defining socio-political landscape. Like Williams and Miller, Kushner created indelible characters borne out of the American psyche. The play’s proclamation, “I am a messenger!” (biliously delivered by Thompson), metaphorically connects European immigrants making passage to America, Mormon history and a disenfranchised American gay community succumbing to a new, fatal, sexually transmissible disease.

Stage actors Ben Shenkman and Justin Kirk play lovers Louis Ironson and Prior Walker, whose lives are blown out of the water when Prior reveals to Louis that he has AIDS.Louis leaves him and gets involved with a closeted Mormon lawyer, Joe (Patrick Wilson), who is taken under the wing of the also closeted Roy Cohn, ruthless attorney and powermonger.The first time Louis seduces Joe he tells him, "Words are useless" before they have sex.Joe’s wife Harper is in the valley of the dolls in more ways than one and escapes into delusional depression.

Director Nichols allows Kushner’s florid soliloquies full reign, some of which might have benefited from cuts.Nichols films the cityscapes of New York City as an epic backdrop to depict an epochal time.The title sequence is a hypnotic fly-by from San Francisco to New York that ends at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, scored to Thomas Newman’s haunting themes.Unfortunately, most of the other special effects are brittle, even cheesy.The moment when the Angel bursts through the walls of Prior’s apartment, so electrifying onstage, lacks impact in the screen depiction.

Even though some of the weaker sections in "Perestroika" hold up better on screen than they did on stage, Nichols doesn’t trim Kushner’s thematic bloat enough in his attempt to record the whole work. What comes through glowingly, though, is Kushner’s poetic dialogue and Nichols evokes strong performances all the way around.The utilization of key actors to play multiple roles (Streep and Thompson each play three), while adapted directly from the original productions, is probably more appropriate for the stage than the screen and is more distracting than effective here.

Kushner’s dark antagonist, Roy Cohn, is a Mephistophelean figure who seduces and poisons everyone around him–asymbol of the corrupted American Dream.Pacino’s operatic Cohn, brittle in the early scenes, is tamed later, opposite Streep and Wright’s Belize. It’s Pacino’s best performance in decades. Wright is transfixing as the moral center of the play and Mary Louis-Parker gives Harper flesh and bone in a role that seemed sketchier onstage.Patrick Wilson believably comes out of the closet as a gay Mormon, smartly underplaying in otherwise thundering scenes with Parker.

Shenkman keeps too tight a hold on Louis, sprinting through the scenes, but delivering a fine interior performance, especially in his scenes with Wilson. And Emma Thompson manages to be bizarre as both an Angel and as Prior’s androgynous physician.Justin Kirk has the biggest baggage to haul as Prior and manages to keep the death-bed scenes emotionally real and unsentimental.

Nearly forty years ago, a thirty-something Nichols unflinchingly brought to the screen Edward Albee’s incisive and scathing play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Its most startling effect was the intimacy and power Nichols achieved, transferring groundbreaking theater to the screen.He brings the same power to Angels in America, if not quite at the same level of consistency.

Lewis Whittington

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.