Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel and Stephen Spinella as AIDS-stricken Prior… ( Craig Schwartz / Center…)
Show business is ruled by the "elevator pitch" – the need for any project to lend itself to a short, immediately comprehensible summation. Part of the glory of "Angels in America" is that it's impossible to give one. Here are the main strands:
A gay couple in mid-1980s New York Cityis sundered when the healthy partner, Louis Ironson, can't summon the courage to stand by Prior Walter, who has just learned he has AIDS and has begun to have severe symptoms. Louis, who has a Woody Allen-like tendency to be witty and think too much (minus the schlemiel element), goes through much emotional suffering on the way to learning how to be a mensch. By play's end, about four years later in January 1990, he and Prior have become reconciled, though not reunited.
Joe Pitt, a straight-arrow conservative Republican Mormon law clerk for a federal judge, is horrified by his own homosexuality and has tried to extinguish his true nature by marrying a wife he doesn't desire. That betrayal of himself and Harper, his wife, comes close to destroying them both; Kushner leaves Joe in limbo, but gives Harper the resolve to escape her immobilizing Valium haze and move ahead with her life.
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Roy Cohn, a historical figure who was one of the 20th century's most influential Republican fixers until his death from AIDS in 1986, serves as the play's emblem of malevolent egotism, oligarchic political power and contempt for homosexuality (although he is gay himself). First seen cultivating Joe as a protégé, then shown suffering in the AIDS ward where Louis and Prior's sardonic friend, Belize, is a male nurse, Cohn also serves as a narrative link between the play's two tortured-relationship stories. Volcanic and indomitable, Roy is that rarity of rarities, a scintillating stage villain who's both utterly unspeakable and completely irresistible. In his dying delirium, he encounters the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution as a Soviet spy he'd engineered as right-hand man to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s.
Belize is the play's moral center, an exemplar of no-nonsense, pragmatic compassion. Joe's steely Mormon mother, Hannah Pitt, arrives from Salt Lake City to attend to her son and daughter-in-law's marital crisis, and by happenstance finds herself forced to help Prior through a medical emergency. The experience allows her previously hidden capacity for compassion and change to emerge.
On top of all these earthly goings-on, Kushner uses Prior (joined in one scene by Hannah) as a bridge to cosmic themes, starting when an angel comes crashing through his bedroom ceiling in the startling annunciation that brings the play's first half, "Millennium Approaches," to a literally shattering close.
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In the second part, "Perestroika," we learn that the heavenly host has been left to its own devices by a God who became bored with perfection, created humankind to shake things up, then went mysteriously AWOL. The angels want to enlist Prior as a prophet who'll perform the "great work" of compelling noisy humanity to stop all its fussing and settle into permanent, unconflicted stasis, allowing heaven the peace and quiet it craves. Instead, like Jacob in the Bible, Prior wrestles with the angel (after joining her in comically cosmic sexual congress) and wins the authority to substitute a prophetic message of his own, which he delivers by addressing the audience with a closing benediction: "More Life."
In earlier stage classics, such as Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," homosexuality had been a shadowy plot engine. But here it was front and center, with five gay men, drawn with complexity, among the eight main characters, each rising or falling to his own level in the play's moral balances.
"You could feel the ripples in the audience," former Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson recalls. "For many people, it allowed them into this world that they wanted to know more about and didn't even know how to express that. And suddenly, there it was for them."
As social and political theater, says Kushner, "I have no idea whether or not 'Angels' changed anything. Plays have enormous power, but it's an indirect power. Most of what I get is a lot of parents saying they have a gay child who read 'Angels' and it meant a lot to him, or gay men and women who've said, 'I read your play in high school and it helped me come out,' or 'my parents saw it on television and until then I don't think they really understood me.' It's wonderful, and it means a lot to me."
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