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Kushner's everyman genius

If 'Wrestling With Angels,' a profile of the playwright, is missing salacious details, blame his good nature. It's his insight that matters.

December 12, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

The "POV" portrait of playwright Tony Kushner "Wrestling With Angels" is strangely dull, and this is both disappointing and cause for celebration. Freida Lee Mock is thorough and generous in her portrayal of the man who has given us the far-ranging brilliance of "Angels in America," "Homebody/Kabul" and "Caroline, or Change." But there's no way she can overcome what is perhaps the most amazing fact about her subject: Despite being a writer of great power and conviction, Tony Kushner seems like a very nice, fairly ordinary guy.

Those looking for the more typical gay urban writer back story of, say, Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote -- the tortured life, the shining talent pitted by depression, addiction or both -- will have to look elsewhere. There are no famous feuds in Kushner's past, no opening-night tantrums to report, no casting-couch romances. Kush- ner, happily married to Mark Harris, is apparently the sort of man who sends presents to sick friends and elicits boundless praise from actors and directors. Though he walks through the streets of New York, or at least he does in "Wrestling," wearing a fedora, he still looks and sounds like precisely what he is: a nice Jewish boy from the South.

None of this is particularly helpful to the documentary, at least not in these show-us-the-scandal times. But it is wonderfully beneficial to the heart. Not only does it prove that we have moved beyond a time when being a "gay writer" is drama in itself, but Kushner also provides a model for a new, and spectacularly humane, revolutionary: a man who simply tells the truth about who he is and what he believes. Which, you know, all of us can do, even if we're not up to winning a Pulitzer Prize.

"Wrestling," which follows his life from 2002 through 2004, makes all of these points almost at once by opening with Kushner addressing the 2002 graduating class at Vassar. Speaking quickly, and with his eyes firmly on his speech, Kushner is clearly no orator, but his words are funny, sweet and perilously direct:

"This is a time of crisis," he tells his audience, "and in a time of crisis we have to focus on getting real, and what do you do? You get a playwright to deliver the commencement speech. Thank you for inviting me, but I worry about you. . . . What am I doing here? I am here to be political, I am here to be a citizen in a pluralist democracy. Why you? Because the world will end if you don't act. . . . Will the world end if you don't act? Who can say? Will you lose your soul, your democratic citizenship? I guarantee it. So commence already . . . the world is waiting for you, the world needs you desperately. Organize, speak the truth. Thanks."

Like "Angels in America," "Wrestling" has many things to say about many things and uses chapters to organize it all. As with "Angels," full immersion is preferred over standard story line, which is more difficult to pull off in a documentary about a single person. Kushner is an unapologetically political playwright, chronicling some of the great issues of our times -- the AIDS crisis and gay rights, racism, classism and international intolerance -- and "Wrestling" expects you to know this when it opens in 2002, with Kushner discussing 9/11. With a play about Afghanistan about to open, a play that includes Osama bin Laden, Kushner was suddenly seen as having rare, almost eerie insight. Yet, he argues, the whole point of the play was that even a playwright could look around the world "and see that this country was about to blow up in our faces."

A second act follows Kushner back to hometown Lake Charles, La., and through his early years as a relatively happy suburban child in a liberal household. Not so liberal that Kushner's gayness was immediately accepted, but early hurtful rejection by his mother Sylvia (who cried for six months) and father Bill was healed in adulthood, and Bill is now a doting parent. "Sylvia once said, 'Obviously, our genes are better than we are,' and that certainly turned out to be the case," Bill says.

If nothing else, "Wrestling With Angels" proves you can have a happy childhood and still be a great artist. We follow Kushner through 2003 and 2004, heady years for the playwright. "Angels in America" is made into a television movie (for which Kushner adds an Emmy to his Pulitzer). Kushner and Harris marry. "Caroline, or Change," the story of a black maid bristling under the weight of servitude in a white Jewish house, premieres small, but Kushner fights to take it to Broadway, where it is a big hit. He works with Maurice Sendak on "Brundibar," a children's opera. The two stage a performance that pays homage to another "Brundibar" -- that put on by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp for Nazi propaganda purposes.

Kushner's life is admirably rich, but at times, the film becomes an almost overwhelming mishmash of imagery. Clearly, the filmmakers are trying to capture not only the man but also the many things that move him. So many detours, however, make it difficult for a viewer to find their own emotional journey.

That Kushner uses the prism of his brilliance to burn away hatred and intolerance and irresponsible politics is inarguable. But his power is his art and his indefatigable nature more than his personal presence, which seems almost too amiable for genius. In the end, it's difficult to image Kushner wrestling with angels; surely he would simply invite them in for tea and cake and spirited conversation.


'POV: Wrestling With Angels'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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