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With its three Tony awards — best revival, best leading actor (Andrew Garfield), and best featured actor (Nathan Lane) — Angels in America is a certified Broadway success. The show is grossing close to a million dollars a week; the critics are pleased. And with the current revivals of The Boys in the Band (marking its 50th anniversary) and soon, Torch Song Trilogy (its 40th), the play finds itself amidst a wave of gay revivals. The production, directed by Marianne Elliott, who developed the project in London for the National Theatre before bringing it to Broadway, offers a lens into gayness in the dimension of history — what is intransigent, what is still promissory, and what is so profoundly disappointing.
As a play, Angels rises above its companions in large part because it helps us grasp the latter: how political and personal disappointment lead us to despair, and how despair gives way to a kind of vertigo, as the projects that once gave our lives orientation come to naught. We are left stunned, breathless to keep up with a life that rushes on unabated. Kushner’s work grapples with the question of what is to be done — what we are to do — in the midst of our collective and individual disorientation, in the absence of progress. He conveys the constitutively human trifecta of responsibility, impotence, and blindness. The natural impulse is to abandon ship (which is why abandonment, by a lover and by God, is at the center of Angels).
In his 1994 Slavs!, a play in which the fall of the Soviet Union is grasped as the civilizational collapse it was, a character explains what the future looks like from heaven: “There is only a great cloud of turbulent midnight, and not even the dead can see what is to come.” The vision is bleak. And the rock-bottom hopelessness which Kushner plumbed in this period (which included A Bright Room Called Day in 1985 and Slavs! in 1994) made what glimmers of light he offered, and particularly those in Angels, so tantalizing. It was his ability to draw on the self-seriousness of the existentialist play (Ionesco and Beckett), and to respond to their aesthetic despondency with baroque fabulation that made Angels a gay masterpiece.
Both Torch Song (which debuted in 1978 and had a short off-Broadway run earlier this year) and The Boys in the Band (off-Broadway in 1968, adapted for film in 1970), are mired in the artifactual: they are remnants of a different world. This not uninteresting, per se. In Torch Song, for example, a fatal gay bashing that occurs between the acts is so naturalized within the world of the play that the characters hardly seem to miss a beat. What did it mean to love under conditions of such duress? This is a good question. There was, apparently, such an atmosphere of violence and homophobia in the play’s New York that the crime takes on the sense of the inevitable. The city changed, but the fragility of gay love in a context of injustice endured. Angels considers not the wanton violence of the street, but AIDS as the marriage of biological and social catastrophes that (it seemed) would end gay life altogether.
Angels in America debuted on Broadway in 1993 and returned, off-Broadway, in 2010. Mike Nichols directed a (fantastic) 2003 adaptation for HBO. The play toured, and has been produced a number of times outside the US. The twenty-five-year anniversary thus doesn’t mark a period of absence. The play, a “gay fantasia on national themes,” (the play’s subtitle) is composed of two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” and set in New York in 1985–6. It traces out the intersections, historical and personal, between a gay man, Prior Walter, who is developing AIDS; Louis, the lover who abandons him; Louis’s new, right-wing Mormon lover, Joe Pitt (married to a Valium-popping woman, Harper); Joe’s mother; and Louis’s friend and caretaker (and the play’s only character of color), Belize. There is also Joe’s mentor, Roy Cohn, whose outer-borough, “ethnic white” ressentiment, edged in blood, echoes his real-life protégé, Donald Trump (Cohn, or Kushner’s Cohn, is much, much smarter), and Cohn’s antagonist, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. There is a rabbi and an angel. The play is, among other things, a meditation on the Jewish mystics’ notion of God as an absent lover, evident in the brokenness of creation, the disappointment of America as a spiritual ideal (for Mormons, but also in the civil-religious imagination of Americans — white Americans, and the Jewish Americans who aspired to full whiteness — more broadly). It is about the torment of creatures like us caught between the world of ideas and the carnage of history.
In the role of Prior, the play’s narrative dynamo, Andrew Garfield brings a grating schoolboy excitement. One is immediately certain that he has learned all his lines, considered various deliveries, searching for the tonal shadings between comedy, melodrama, and tragedy that make the play sing. One is equally certain that he has grappled, in what appears to him to be generosity, with the fraught question of sexual representation: What does it mean for a straight actor — Spiderman, for heaven’s sake! — to enact Prior’s being-gay-towards-death? To inhabit a character whose personal fate exemplifies, with all the play’s grace and humor, an ability to face the apocalypse, fey and weary? What we see on stage is a true mark of our time: the delight of a straight actor in inhabiting what we can only now call the gay canon.
The role requires an exceptional, and exceptionally humane, intelligence. Stephen Spinella provided this when he originated the role on Broadway in 1993, finding the tensile, sensitive creature in Kushner’s language. In Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation, Justin Kirk brought out something that I had never seen on screen before: a way of being unmistakably gay and sexy, sexy in a way that can only be gay. His Prior had a sly intelligence that landed, on a dime, in the play’s moments of real tenderness.
Garfield adds the kind of actorly choices for which he probably won the Tony — various honks and squeaks that pass for character, unmistakably gay, and, therefore constitute choices I imagine we are meant to respect. They are the choices a straight man, playing a straight man, playing a gay man would make. They are therefore “gay” in an interesting, petrified way: as though the spirit of gay history had not moved forward, had never deposited various “yas queens” and “werk” into the detritus of brunch culture before moving on. With Garfield, we see the dead husk of reenactment in the absence of the gay spirit. (To be clear: the point is not that only gay actors can play gay. Jeffrey Wright’s Belize — on Broadway in 1993 and in the Nichols’ production — should dispel any such notion.)
To his credit, Nathan Lane maintains a reliable connection to the play’s founding impulse. Playing a homosexual playing a straight man, he finds the winking moments of recognition. And when he plays an ancestor of Prior (a prior prior — that’s the joke), he truly shines. Denise Gough brings charm to her Harper, blunted but resilient. Susan Brown too seems at home in the play, always compelling as she moves between her roles. (It’s fun seeing actors inhabit differ roles in the play — Kushner understands the specific joys of the theatrical form.) As the guilt-ridden moralizer, Louis, James McArdle is believably torn, though he and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who brings great warmth to his Belize, can’t quite seem to get in front of Kushner, always playing catch up to his ideas. There has been some controversy over the sexuality of the actor, Lee Pace, who plays Joe Pitt. The controversy is stupid (he was outed; no one was shocked). He’s also pretty good.
Garfield’s casting and the outing of Pace (and the much ballyhooed casting of a number of gay cast members in The Boys in the Band), is in a sense, the most contemporary aspect of the revival. We are witnessing gay assimilation at full tilt, with all the unexpected reversals and counter-reversals it has brought with it. I read the moment against the proliferation of baseball caps that have the luxury gym brand, Equinox, spelled out in rainbow colors. Or the contingent of McKinsey consultants I saw last year at the Pride parade wearing loafers and rainbow-colored socks. I would like one of the hats, in particular, as a way to mark the historical moment: in the future it may be helpful to explain what this time was like.
Revivals too, are helpful indicators of our time. Much of what was once so controversial about these revivals (and it is important to remember that they were controversial) has been metabolized by the broader social and political culture. Pink-washing, corporate and state, is ubiquitous (again, the hats). Angels and its companions are marked by a before — before the internecine struggles to displace the urban, middle-class men who came to stand in for a larger community, parts for the whole — and an after, in which their protagonists may now well have Equinox memberships. This is not to say the plays are hetero assimilationist in the sense of Will and Grace or Modern Family — far from it. But it is the fate of this earlier works to be seen through the lens of what would follow: by the son, the father is begotten. Freud once said that the purpose of analysis is to move the patient “from neurotic misery to ordinary human unhappiness.” We might say that the gay present (as a classed, racialized category) is defined by its ordinary unhappiness, by a happiness in despair. This is the riddle to be explained.
And it is here that we might chafe against the notion of the gay revival itself. For gay speech is nothing if not inventive. It is also decidedly self-conscious — determining itself, out of itself, responding with novelty to its own ossified forms. It is language in a state of permanent efflorescence. To revive gay theater — the usufruct of the gay spirit — one must grasp the conditions out of which it emerged and to which it responded. It is catching lighting in a bottle. It is what truly great actors do — to make each repetition feel alive.
The issue is one that Kushner is clearly aware of. When Prior, in full Norma Desmond drag, is joined by Harper through a bit of theatrical and narrative magic (one of the play’s best scenes), Harper, confused about how she can dream someone with whom she is unacquainted, ponders the possibility of real novelty. She says “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions … Nothing unknown is knowable. Don’t you think that’s depressing?” Prior’s responds, “It’s something you learn after your second theme party. It’s All Been Done Before.” The meta-theatrical moment is Kushner’s way of thinking through the play itself: his creative act is both constrained by the history it emerges from, and is dependent on that history to furnish it with its material. The in-breaking of the radically new, in art, in life, and in the religious imagination (“the messianic”) is only graspable through the old. Prophecy is, counterintuitively, an inherited genre, a genre of inheritance, and it is a genre that Kushner embraced in all its imaginative, overwrought fabulousness. It was fodder for his vision.
It was. But the spirit is restless and cannot abide in the past. Thus the obscene ticket prices on Broadway help to remind us of the price we pay for tarrying in what has already come to pass. (Kushner campaigned, successfully, to offer cheaper tickets in the play’s original Broadway run as a way of paying thanks to the world that gave birth to the play.) What is required now, I think, is a play that helps us understand the despair endemic to a world for which our predecessors so tirelessly worked. That play is not Angels. When the spirit so moves as to speak again, it will have learned a great deal from the play. It will not revive the play so much as have something to say to it. As Kushner reminds us, “the world only spins forward.”
Angels in America continues its run at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 W 52nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 15.