Angels in America

by Tony Kushner

published by Theatre Communications Group

304 pages, 2003

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Angels in America DVD

directed by Mike Nichols

Warner Home Video

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Angels in America CD

music by Thomas Newman

Elektra Records, 2004

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Larger Than Life

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


When my wife and I saw Angels in America on Broadway a decade ago, it was an eight-hour epic split into two 4-hour performances. It was brilliant theater, and we still talk about it to this day. But these days we're also talking about the Angels in America film that appeared on HBO last fall and is now on DVD.

One of the things that made the play so entrancing was that it happened right in front of you. With minimal stage sets and special effects, the magic was in the text, in the wondrous, challenging words of Tony Kushner. The play and its message were seared into you because it occurred mere feet away. Translated to film, Angels loses none of its impact. Somehow, thanks to a pared-down script by Kushner and crisp direction by Mike Nichols, it's just as immediate and intense and startling as it was on stage.

While Kushner's script is the star of this film -- a treatise on 1980s politics, AIDS, and the American Experience -- its actors are no slouches. I don't think I've ever seen an ensemble come together the way this one has. At the center of it all is Justin Kirk as Prior Walter. Prior has AIDS, and his kaposi's sarcoma are just beginning to appear. His boyfriend, Louis (played by Ben Shenkman) doesn't have the moral strength to stick with Prior, so he bolts, leaving Prior to turn to his former lover Belize (played by Jeffrey Wright).

At the same time, Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker play a Mormon couple just moved to New York. Wilson's character Joe is a young, closeted lawyer who finds himself falling for Louis as his wife Harper falls apart emotionally. She's visited more or less daily by Mr. Lies (also played by Jeffrey Wright), a sort of travel agent for the mentally disturbed.

When Joe comes out to his mother Hannah (played by Meryl Streep), she abandons her life in Utah and comes to New York. And Joe struggles to remain in the good graces of his friend and quasi-mentor Roy Cohn, played by Al Pacino. Cohn is near the end of his life, closeted, in-denial and suffering from AIDS.

As Prior deals with the disease, he is visited by an Angel, played by Emma Thompson, and this visitation sends him into a spiritual tailspin that brings him face-to-face with God, faith, reality and his future.

Don't worry. It's not nearly as complex when you're watching it. Kushner's script keeps everyone in play and clearly drawn. The actors, even those who play more than one part (primarily Streep, Thompson and Wright), expertly create distinct nuances and personalities for everyone. It's really quite astounding.

What's amazing about Angels in America is how its depth sneaks up on you. In its apparent soap opera plot, characters are tossed together in odd combinations -- revealing new and ever-fascinating facets -- and they're supported by a substructure of religious belief, politics, anger and faith.

These characters are driven not so much by what they are as by what they wish to be (or not be). When Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Streep), his talent for manipulation is revealed, as is his fear of being found out. Likewise, when Hannah (also Streep) meets Prior, she is not repelled. Rather, they envelope each other, and each learns to speak the other's language. Each is made richer by the experience, and while their belief systems don't quite change, they do become a bit more lax, open to new ideas and new kinds of people.

One could argue that Angels in America is about people whose boxes are forced by circumstance to become bigger and more forgiving. Throughout the six hours, every character endures massive change: through his experiences with the Angel and Hannah, Prior learns to see beyond his homosexuality; through his relationship with Joe, Louis comes to see that life need not be feared or even despised so intensely, and Joe learns that one must be true to oneself; Harper's delusions teach her there's something to be said for being a little nuts; and begrudgingly, Cohn learns that compassion isn't always a bad thing.

While the actors brings such vitality to these people as a group, each shines brightly on their own. Pacino, who invests such anger into so many of his roles, is even angrier here -- but there's no Pacino to be found. He completely disappears into his role, as do Streep, Thompson, Wright and Parker. Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman, actors we don't know as well, bring a stark reality to their characters, making their way through the mess of a shattered relationship. Together, they allow us to see that life can and does go on, even in the dark and terrible face of death.

Director Mike Nichols, for all his skill and all the effects this story calls for, uses incredible restraint. Truly, Angels in America doesn't seem directed at all; rather, it seems to have been filmed as it happened. Of course this is one of the things Nichols has always done so well, making fiction seem like non-fiction.

Composer Thomas Newman has done a superlative job with the score, weaving his lush melodies with his quirky atonal soundscape. The result is a strange, gorgeous pastiche that stands with his best work, such as his scores for The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women and American Beauty. In a way, his music is a metaphor for the whole of the film: its human quirks are grounded by a lushness, an appreciation for life's free-verse poetry.

Angels in America triumphs because it shows what's possible in the world. Its message is optimistic, even hopeful. I wish it had been a feature film on a massive screen, but I'd guess more people saw it on HBO and will see it on DVD -- and that's a good thing. In the end, it doesn't matter where or how one sees this work as long as one sees it. Besides, with all its thematic brilliance, its fearless challenge, its awesome power as art on so many levels, Angels accomplishes the remarkable: It turns the small screen into a very big screen, indeed. | September 2004


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He writes advertising for a large marketing firm and is building a small book publishing company in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.