by: Paul Kubicki
“Angels in America is not an AIDS play,” Tony Kushner writes in his introduction to the published script of his magnum opus. And he’s right—calling Angels an AIDS play would be to mistake the lens for the subject. Angels uses the surfacing of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s as a case-study, of sorts, to answer (or perhaps, ask) the metaphysical question, “What does it mean to be American with the approaching new millennium?”
To attempt to accurately describe the plot or even thematic elements of this play is almost impossible to do without reiterating the entire script. This, perhaps, is why it is so easily (and so tragically often) labeled an AIDS play. I’ll at least give it a try: the play, set in New York City during the Reagan-era, focuses on Prior Walter’s struggle to keep from sliding into nihilism once his boyfriend leaves him as he resumes his critical struggle with AIDS. Simultaneously, it deals with a Mormon woman’s struggle to come to terms with her failing marriage and the fact that her husband is a closeted homosexual. During part one, Millennium Approaches, the ties that bind begin to snap, relationships unwind, and the characters’ interpersonal society deteriorates beyond repair until the literal Angel of America touches down. During part two, Perestroika, new, surprising relationships are forged, psyches repaired, and a political community is reconstructed from the chaos. The play is simultaneously political (the angel is a “continental principality”), spiritual (the angel is an angel), and personal (the angel is Prior’s vision), and thus impossible to peg as just one thing. It is a sweeping modern epic; and in its summation, it may truly be the gay epic, bringing closure to the 20th century. Any description could never do Kushner’s genius in this work justice, but understanding these major themes can help you see how Angels has stayed relevant to audiences today, and why its performances are crucial to an examination of our progression as a nation from the spiritual and political low-point of the Reagan-era.
I’ll admit I’m extremely well acquainted with and extremely fond of this play. Tony Kushner is my favorite playwright, and I would venture to say that he is one of the most talented out there currently producing work. This particular play is ripe with major philosophical and political questions. It is intensely personal and extremely metaphysical at the same time- a phenomenal feat. Through the interaction of a Jewish gay man and a black gay man (the personal), Kushner highlights the subtle differences of anti-Semitism and racism, and then compares each to homophobia to find where, exactly, this prejudice fits into the spectrum (the intensely political). These abstractions are rampant throughout the play. Each conversation can be read on multiple levels, as a battle of wits and emotions between characters or as a sparring of opposing metaphysical stances.
Angels calls itself “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” This is true, insofar as the play’s gay nature means something to me because it captures elements of my identities, some of the struggles my community has faced. But it is simultaneously untrue and unfair– while it may have hooked me with its gay identity, the reason it strikes me so intimately is because it deals with such intense personal struggles on such abstract levels. It dances and cries out, “Life for the sake of Life! Progress or die!” thus wrapping some of the most beautiful theory in an intensely relatable and highly fantastical plot. Given the problem of the untruthfulness of philosophy, given the lack of praxis in the world around us, Angels commands us to move beyond those theories that hinder us and create new, self-affirming ideals. In this respect, it is queer, Nietzschean and liberating. This is the play that liberates us from the 20th century, at long last.
Perhaps it is due to my familiarity with the play that I am extremely disappointed with the Court Theatre’s production of Angels. Charles Newell’s direction is clunky, melodramatic and full of basic direction missteps; furthermore, it misses much of the play’s subtle beauty and discards many of the play’s themes.
Newell’s direction does have really interesting moments; the prophet-lights swinging and the ceiling bursting as the angel swings up is truly beautiful, really hitting the right note for the moment. Unfortunately, he does not stay on pitch throughout. Part of the brilliance of Angels is that it deals with remarkably depressing subject matter in a relatively light-hearted way. You may find yourself filled with empathy and welling up with tears in one moment, but in the next, you’re whipped back into the characters’ comedy. Kushner has a remarkable ability to not leave us stewing in anything for too long– with joy comes tragedy, but with tragedy comes joy. Newell’s direction certainly understands this, but rather than stepping softly between the two, his production unapologetically jolts you back and forth in a dichotomous rage. One moment, Prior is laying heel up in all pink, attempting to make us giggle with his over-the-top drag dream sequence. In the next, he’s bawling hysterically, Newell expecting the audience to make the jump to empathy that quickly. The humor should help heighten the empathy, not distance us from it — but the indelicate jolts in Newell’s direction leaves us only with this distance.
Newell also misses many of the play’s beautiful moments and themes. In Perestroika, Harper and Hannah Pitt argue with one another, until Harper remarks “You have even less of a place in this world than I do, if that’s possible.” The insensitivity but underlying truth of that line leaves the audience stunned- we’ve grown to empathize with Hannah, and we hurt with her as she is fundamentally and metaphysically undercut. Instead of relishing in this pain for even a moment, Newell treats this dialogue as if it is just conversational. The line shocks the audience, but we get no time to feel it. This is common throughout both parts. Instead of relishing in beauty, he barrels on, determined to get the audience out of the theater by midnight.
Other than indelicate and under-developed, his direction has basic technical flaws. Actors stand upstage of and behind major props, making it impossible to see their faces during major monologues (and I was in the center section). The scenes that are done on balconies make it nearly impossible for the actors to do anything with the space, and very hard to see. I was shocked to see many of these flaws from a professional theater.
Rob Lindley’s Prior was also disappointing, swerving wholly either into comedy or tears; perhaps this was the fault of Newell, as I posed the same criticism of his direction. But Prior was the character in which this dramatic schizophrenia was most present. It was difficult to feel sorry for Prior, who came across as over-flamboyant and whiny; he was overall just plain obnoxious. Prior should be our dramatic hero, not a mash-up of a weepy Frodo Baggins and Shirley Temple.
Also subpar was Michael Pogue’s Belize and Mr. Lies. He didn’t seem to have a grasp of either character’s philosophy, nor a real handle on Belize’s emotional core. Belize is critical to this play, providing not only the only cynical insight, but the only perspective of a person of color. His Belize stumbled through some of the major philosophical themes of the play as if they were just sassy quips. “All your checks bounce, you’re ambivalent about everything,” Belize tells Louis, because his head is filled with ideas, which, ultimately, have little praxis. This is not an “oh-snap” moment, but a moment in which there is legitimate criticism posed with emotional tension. Instead of a major philosophical and emotional perspective, Pogue uses the line to elicit little more than a chuckle. This seems emblematic of the majority of his performance.
While I may sound a bit harsh, I think it is a major testament to the play that it manages still to be somewhat effective and engaging in all its seven hours despite these deterrents. The play, and some of the actors, balance out these diminutions.
Larry Yando’s Roy Cohn, the heartless McCarthy-era lawyer who put Rosenberg in the chair, is extremely effective — at times, even terrifying. He impressively brandishes his fatherly and lawyerly charm, but then shocks with his inhuman alternation between familial sentimentality and utter chilliness. Hollis Resnik handles Mormon mother Hannah Pitt and Jewish mamma Ethel Rosenberg with simultaneous subtlety and gravitas, working past the barren, harsh outer shell of each character and pushing to their depths. She also is spot on with the introduction monologues to each play, filling us first with energy and hope, but then a very ghastly despair. And Heidi Kettenring’s Harper (the self-identified Mormon, “pill-popping, sex-starved housewife”) while at times a bit over-the-top, gets really to the core of this character and adds a truly playful perspective to this character. By the end, Harper and Hannah Pitt are the characters that the audience seems the most drawn to. The actors really earn this, and you can tell they’ve worked hard to build a connection with the audience.
The Court Theatre’s production of Angels does not do Kushner’s delicate, subtle, and playful epic justice– undercuts some of the greatest strengths of the work. The play lands, but the landing is rocky and clunky, insecure in its footing. While it has its redeeming qualities, those are probably not worth dishing out thirty-five bucks a night, totaling seventy, for its two parts. Instead, you’re better off Netflix-ing the brilliant HBO version with friends.
Paul Kubicki is a sophomore studying philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, where he is vice president of their LGBTQA group, Advocate Loyola. He has a distinct love of graphic novels, Showtime’s Weeds, theater, and Amanda Palmer. Kubicki identifies as gay and as a Kushner-ian, and enjoys playing the harp and the ukulele.