Building the Monolith

Angels in America, Part One: Millenium

May 18, 1993

Vast, sprawling, and wordy, Angels in America instantly announces itself as American. Its eccentric, catchall bigness, its lofty appeals to end-of-the-world millennial panic, and the cold water it throws on them with flip jokes and blunt biological talk, couldn't have been assembled anywhere but here, in the "melting pot, where nothing melted," as the prologue puts it. Trying to shape a work that includes everything, Tony Kushner doesn't hesitate to turn it all upside down as well: The speaker of this prologue is an elderly Orthodox rabbi, played by a younger and distinctly Gentile actress. The blasphemy and gender subversion, like the flip jokes, stave off pomposity, guaranteeing that every notion advanced will also include its opposite.

Though a discomfiting character to Kushner's audience, the rabbi is what elderly Jews usually are in works with epic claims, a fount of wit and wisdom; the absurd casting (asked for in the script) implies, not that he is absurd, but that he and the actress are in some respect identical, that as Americans they share some indefinable essence. And this essence fills Kushner's approach, privileging all the characters with his mellifluous turns of speech and brightness of perception, from the Valium-dazed Mormon wife to the compulsively knowing political fixer Roy Cohn.

In that respect, Angels in America is the best kind of political play. Rather than take an orderly stance on a specific set of issues, it treats politics as a connected and conflicting set of impulses, a moral soup in which we find ourselves swimming. Every move we make, or fail to, defines our position more clearly, but any choice might be unexpectedly disastrous. We're all in the soup together, and it would take a miracle to get us out. Appropriately, Part One of Angels ends with a miracle, the appearance of a heavenly messenger to a gay man dying of AIDS. What comes next to fulfill Kushner's vision, I can't say: It's a confirmation of his gifts that he's made people stand up and scream bravos at the end of what is essentially a three-hour-long first act.

The defining ingredient in Kushner's version of the American soup is gayness, a quality to which America grants extra imaginative license as a reward for accepting outcast status meekly. Our institutions are straight, white, and male, but there isn't any straight white male culture; this is the only Western country where ruling-class traits are assumed to include an inability to imagine. Significantly, none of Kushner's gay characters is an artist; homosexuality is only a condition of their lives, a prism through which they inevitably view the world. And there are no straight male characters, except perhaps the functionaries (rabbi, doctor) of whose private lives we get no glimpse, and who are all played by women. Though Angelsis constructed like a classical double-plot play, and written in the naturalistic, jokey tone traditional on Broadway, it eschews "normality," implying that gay is no less normal than any other way of not-melting in our nonmelting pot.

Louis, the character most like the author—a gay Jew with a gift for verbal pyrotechnics—has a long, circular speech attempting to prove that, logically, America shouldn't be a racist nation, since it has no dominant cultural pattern, and therefore no monolithic sense of nationhood. "It's really just a collection of small problems, the monolith is missing." As the speech winds down its convoluted path, he finds himself declaring, "There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political."

This is a joke, of course: Louis is gabbling to avoid admitting that he's abandoned his dying lover, Prior—and Prior, who comes from an old WASP family, is the chosen prophet to whom an angel will shortly appear. Louis, after a failed attempt to blot out his guilt with anonymous sex in the park, links this story with its counterplot by taking home Joe Pitt, the closeted Mormon and Roy Cohn protégé who has just confessed to his mother and wife that he's gay. Prior's apotheosis, balancing Joe's fleshly apostasy, is a parody update of Joseph Smith's vision of the angel Moroni, the founding event of Mormonism.

Both Prior's vision and Lou's betrayal are mirrored in Joe's story when Cohn, a self-hating gay man dying (like Prior) of AIDS, is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution he abetted—a Jew badgering another, the judge ("that timid Yid nebbish"), to kill a third for America's sake. (Perplexed Lou, in contrast, is linked to his Jewish roots by his kinship with the elderly rabbi; but Lou is also weak and vacillating where Cohn is firm and decisive.)

Jews, gays, Mormons, blacks—there aren't any "real" Americans in Angelsexcept Prior, just as there aren't any "straight" white males except Joe. Everyone in Prior's previsions of the angel, including his Anglo-Saxon ancestors, speaks Hebrew. It's as if our whole civilization were collapsing into some dialectical final tussle with its Judeo-Christian origins. AIDS, the inexplicable plague that reveals men's sexual proclivities, becomes a symbol for the parts of its own reality America refuses to accept, a habit it acquired from people like Prior's ancestors: One of the two who appear to him beats a quick retreat when he learns that Prior's a "sodomite"; another, in a story Prior tells Louis, jettisoned his passengers as ballast when his ship was sinking.

The parable's ominous resonance implies the presence of bigotry, but the only homophobia we see onstage is the gay internalized kind: Cohn yelling that he has "cancer," Pitt's ulcerating angst. (Another tiny irony, against the bigots who babble about gay "education": Joe found his gayness through the Bible story of Jacob's struggle with the angel.) Newly empowered as a political group, gays and lesbians are seeing their issues become the decade's central themes: equal rights, AIDS funding, gays in the military, rainbow curricula.

This agenda, of course, won't save America; it merely adds another to the pile of "small problems" that make up the monolith. But it makes Angelsthe right play at the right time. Its materials are familiar from a flood of other plays on gay themes; its techniques (overlapping scenes; dreams and fantasies cracking the realistic surface) are standard fare Off-Off Broadway. What's new is its remix of the old elements in a big, bold way that speaks to our current condition. More than that can't be said, really, till Part Two's onstage and we see what shape Kushner's monolith takes.

Given the pressure of the advance hype, the wonder is that George C. Wolfe's staging holds together at all. Not well integrated or thought-out, it opts for a kind of blank neutrality to satisfy all the conflicting expectations at once. Too elaborate for the pared-down version Kushner's notes request, yet too sparing of its effects to drown the play in glitz, it gets the many scenes on and off with a flat, neat efficiency; indeed, Robin Wagner's sliding velour panels suggest office furniture. A few scenes are heavily overdone; others, like the climactic quartet, are stilted and empty. It's strange, since Wolfe's previous directorial work has shown him to be just the kind of visionary this play needs; his earlier stagings were flawed by tending to drown the material in his visions. Here, with a script that could probably withstand the attack, his work seems noncommittal and conceptless, a set of problems to be solved on the way to more important things.

His cast, partly inherited from earlier versions, is a mixed bag, with almost everyone but Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, and David Marshall Grant trying too hard, veering in and out of emotional focus—especially frustrating in Stephen Spinella's Prior, which at its best moments is very moving. Joe Mantello's efforts to whip up Louis's angst only seem to distance him further from the character, while Marcia Gay Harden, amusing in the small role of a sappy bureaucrat, never quite convinces you that Harper Pitt's tortured language could emerge from her brain. There's no such problem with Ron Leibman's brilliant, top-seed, horror cartoon of Roy Cohn, but its excess points up a flaw in the play's logic: Even the most hopelessly sheltered Mormon would also have to be an epic dimbulb to mistake this stooped, scuttling, manic creature for a man of integrity. (The suave, impassive Cohn of Ron Vawter's solo piece would be more apt.)

Still, the main point is that half of Angels in Americais finally here: the messenger has arrived, though we haven't yet heard the whole message. Meanwhile, Kushner has clearly fulfilled at least some of his big ambitions. Those of us who took A Bright Room Called Dayseriously always knew he could, and those who know the downtown theater form which so much of Angels'ssensibility is drawn will take strength from its popularity, and not fret about the inane uptown hullabaloo that treats it as the only play ever written in America.

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