Among the many issues in "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's millennial epic about gay men coping with the AIDS pandemic in Ronald Reagan's America, is that overused word in the national lexicon: "Change."
The play offers an answer to the question: "How do people change?" — from a talking "dummy," the mother figure in a western diorama: "God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge, filthy hand in …."
If that sounds painful. It's meant to.
Nearly two decades after writing the passage, Kushner says that change, personal or political, hasn't become any easier. On the eve of the first major revival of his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, at New York's intimate off-Broadway Signature Theatre, the playwright adds that, if anything, progress seems more painful than ever.
"Change is always about loss, and we're losing all the time," he says. "We tend to learn through holocaust, more effectively and thoroughly, than by anticipating the holocaust. It would be great if we could change our course knowing that if we don't, then something truly horrendous and unforgiving is about to happen. But we rarely catch it in time."
Graphing that all-too-human resistance to change and the complications that come in its wake is a leitmotif of the sprawling Kushner oeuvre, including "Angels," the musical "Caroline, Or Change," and his newest play, "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures." The revival of "Angels," directed by longtime Kushner collaborator Michael Greif, is the inaugural production of the Signature's season devoted to Kushner's work. It will be followed by the New York premiere of "Intelligent Homosexual's Guide" (what the playwright calls "IHO") and concluding with his loose adaptation of Pierre Corneille's visionary "The Illusion."
He is also putting the finishing touches on an Abraham Lincoln film script for Steven Spielberg. It's little wonder that Kushner, 54, collapses onto a bench in the foyer of the Signature with a bone-tired weariness on an early fall evening. Cradling his head in his hands, he apologizes for "stumbling" over some answers. For Kushner, that simply means there is the occasional pause between lengthy disquisitions shaped by his leftist ideology and steel-trap intellect. Since gaining fame, he has sharpened those talents not only for stage and film ("Munich") but also as a political activist, speaking at rallies and writing commentaries.
Despite his fatigue, the playwright displays a characteristic passion when asked whether he's worried that "Angels" might be outdated since its premiere in the early '90s, when it brought him onto the national stage. After all, when he first began to write about New York gays struggling for love and survival against a backdrop of social and political ferment migrating across spheres and levels of reality, Reagan was just finishing a second term. When the American premiere of "Millennium Approaches," the first part of the play, took place at the Mark Taper Forum in November 1992, Bill Clinton had just been elected to the Oval Office. George W. Bush was president when Mike Nichols' award-winning HBO special of "Angels" aired. Now this production opens on the cusp of midterm elections in the Obama era.
"It's scarily timely, in some ways that I wish it wasn't," says Kushner, going on to list the social and political ills that have dark resonance in the play: what he calls the "eco-cide" of global warming, the rise of the reactionary right in response to Obama's election, and the suicides and beatings of young gay men.
"And the spookiest thing of all," he concludes, "has to do with AIDS. When the play was written there were 7 million people with the disease. There are now 33 million. We've gone from the terrible silence about AIDS described in the play to AIDS being in the news all the time, to it virtually becoming invisible once again."
While Kushner acknowledges what he sees as progress in the intervening decades, he bristles with contempt in speaking of "the lunatics of the tea party," which he maintains have their origins in the "Reagan counter-revolution." That latter movement is illuminated through "Angels" in the galvanizing person of the right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn (played here by Frank Woods in a cast that includes Christian Borle as the AIDS-stricken Prior Walter, Zachary Quinto as his faithless lover Louis, Bill Heck as the closeted Mormon Joe Pitt and Zoe Kazan as his valium-popping, unhappy wife). "We've had a couple of stabs at getting rid of this political madness, but we're at a very dark, tense time now. We're at the crossroads."