Two things are happening on the stage of the Walter Kerr, one theatrical, the other political. The latter overshadows the former.
Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Part I of which opened last night, is a sprawling epic about being gay in America. Its characters include an upper-class WASP dying of AIDS, his crude 13th-century English forebear, a black drag queen, numerous neurotic Mormons, a Jewish filing clerk with intellectual aspirations and, among others, Roy Cohn.
It is a wild, savagely comic journey. I assume I don't have to tell you too many details of the plot, since you have been reading about it for almost a year.
In part this is because Kushner is one of the most orignal writers the theater has had in a long time, one with genuine intelligence and theatrical imagination.
In part this is because "Angels in America" has become an emblem of the gay-rights movement. The theater has always been a gay province, but in recent years its creative people, rather than sublimating their concerns, have used the theater as a pulpit to affirm their identity and their grievances. As pulpits go, "Angels in America" is St. Patrick's.
The play is at its most interesting when it discusses power. Its greatest creation is Roy Cohn, most of whose speeches are based on those of the actual Roy Cohn.. At one point he declares, "Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who...have zero clout. Does this sound like me?"
Similarly, the Jewish intellectual, in every way Cohn's opposite, muses, "Power is the object, not being tolerated." Presumably Part II, which will open next fall, will take this further. Right now, gays musing on power, which once would have seemed ironic, seems matter of fact, if not, like the play's political satire, a bit dated.
Moreover, although the play comes alive in these "arias," the action itself is seldom compelling. The characters are types. In 3 1/2 hours we learn little about them that we - or they - don't already know. Some of the best scenes are quick sketches, like a droll pickup scene in Central Park or the drag queen's literary discussion of a gothic romance.
George C. Wolfe's direction is fairly hard-sell. Nothing about the acting makes the text seem more subtle. (The use of women to play men's roles, in fact, makes it seem even more like a cartoon.) Ron Leibman's portrayal of Cohn is devastating; it has a mesmerizing energy that helps you understand why Lucifer was God's favorite angel. Joe Mantello has a quirky appeal as the intellectual, Jeffrey Wright has just the right edge as the drag queen, and Stephen Spinella is powerful as the dying man.
The play may be too elegantly mounted. It might have come across stronger in a rougher physical production. That Kushner is a major voice seems beyond doubt. But, it must be remembered, this part is entitled "Millennium Approaches." It hasn't arrived yet.
Few plays have arrived on Broadway with the advance fanfares of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America," which last night alighted with all the majesty of foregone success at the Walter Kerr Theater.
The complete play - subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" - is in two parts, and this first installment, called "Millennium Approaches," is to be followed, next fall, by the second part, "Perestroika," with which it will eventually play in repertory.
The present panoramic story details three parables of the gay life. Obviously intended as an epic, it works from a concept of those Big Themes that have seduced American playwrights from O'Neill onward.
The play's unusual structure is made up of an interlocking vignette-series of duologues, offering a musical, even fugal, impression of subject and counter-subject. There is, I think, only one time when the conversations actually overlapped, but the almost cinematic sense of intercut and intercross is everywhere pervasive.
"Millennium Approaches" is intended to show America the way it lives now. Or the way Kushner think it lives.
His theme is the decay of American civilization as played out within the microcosm of the gay community and its reaction to the curveball spin of the plague years. This latter issue of AIDS is the motor force of the play, but the play itself is intended as a paradigm of wider contemporary concerns: moral squalor, love, dependency and hypocrisy.
Brownie points - and attention - must be paid to such a grand concept, even if its reach is longer than its grasp. Yet despite any over-reaching, this first part - more than three hours long - never bores, and it never bores for a very long time.
Curiously, when I first saw the play last year at Britain's National Theater - a far harsher, more political reading of a virtually identical text - its impact seemed greater. The change of nuance was clear in Ron Leibman's virtuoso, viciously amsuing, star turn as Roy Cohn, which seems light-years away from the formidable menace evoked by Henry Goodman in the London production.
The present New York staging, by George C. Wolfe, proves technically impeccable and handsomely acted. It emphasizes Kushner's unexpectably old-style "Boys in the Band" repartee, giving that gay-corpse humor a proper Harvey Fierstein Jewish twist, making it in sensibility very much a Gay Fantasia on New York, rather than American, Themes.
No one has done this kind of bitch-camp humor better, even though Wolfe's dependence upon it for the quick laugh can detract from the playwright's more serious purpose - but there Kushner is hoist with his own petard. If you create a man who mutters "very Steven Spielberg" when confronted with the epiphany of his own death, you have to take what you get.
The stereotyped characters - from a self-hating Jew, to a motherly black drag-queen, to the pill-popping sex-starved wife of a closeted Mormon, to the power-drunk Cohn - lend themselves to bold cartooning, and this the actors beautifully provide.
They are all so good, but special mention must be given to the always impressive Leibman, and Joe Mantello and Stephen Spinella as the lovers together till sickness did them part.
Not perhaps a great play, whether "Angels in America" will prove a major play is for time and its own part two to tell - this first part actually ends on a "Perils of Pauline" cliffhanger! But certainly it has the sticking power and afterlife to adhere in the mind the way major plays invariably do.
"History is about to crack open," says Ethel Rosenberg, back from the dead, as she confronts a cadaverous Roy Cohn, soon to die of AIDS, in his East Side town house. "Something's going to give," says a Brooklyn housewife so addicted to Valium she thinks she is in Antarctica. The year is 1985. It is 15 years until the next millennium. And a young man drenched in death fevers in his Greenwich Village bedroom hears a persistent throbbing, a thunderous heartbeat, as if the heavens were about to give birth to a miracle so that he might be born again.
This is the astonishing theatrical landscape, intimate and epic, of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," which made its much-awaited Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theater last night. This play has already been talked about so much that you may feel you have already seen it, but believe me, you haven't, even if you actually have. The new New York production is the third I've seen of "Millennium Approaches," as the first, self-contained, three-and-a-half- hour part of "Angels in America" is titled. (Part 2, "Perestroika," is to join it in repertory in the fall.) As directed with crystalline lucidity by George C. Wolfe and ignited by blood-churning performances by Ron Leibman and Stephen Spinella, this staging only adds to the impression that Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years.
"Angels in America" is a work that never loses its wicked sense of humor or its wrenching grasp on such timeless dramatic matters as life, death and faith even as it ranges through territory as far-flung as the complex, plague-ridden nation Mr. Kushner wishes both to survey and to address. Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," the play is a political call to arms for the age of AIDS, but it is no polemic. Mr. Kushner's convictions about power and justice are matched by his conviction that the stage, and perhaps the stage alone, is a space large enough to accommodate everything from precise realism to surrealistic hallucination, from black comedy to religious revelation. In "Angels in America," a true American work in its insistence on embracing all possibilities in art and life, he makes the spectacular case that they can all be brought into fusion in one play.
At center stage, "Angels" is a domestic drama, telling the story of two very different but equally troubled young New York couples, one gay and one nominally heterosexual, who intersect by chance. But the story of these characters soon proves inseparable from the way Mr. Kushner tells it. His play opens with a funeral led by an Orthodox rabbi and reaches its culmination with what might be considered a Second Coming. In between, it travels to Salt Lake City in search of latter-day saints and spirals into dreams and dreams-within-dreams where the languages spoken belong to the minority American cultures of drag and jazz. Hovering above it all is not only an Angel (Ellen McLaughlin) but also an Antichrist, Mr. Leibman's Roy Cohn, an unreconstructed right-wing warrior who believes that "life is full of horror" from which no one can escape.
While Cohn is a villain, a hypocritical closet case and a corrupt paragon of both red-baiting and Reagan-era greed, his dark view of life is not immediately dismissed by Mr. Kushner. The America of "Angels in America" is riddled with cruelty. When a young WASP esthete named Prior Walter (Mr. Spinella) reveals his first lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma to his lover of four years, a Jewish clerical worker named Louis Ironson (Joe Mantello), he finds himself deserted in a matter of weeks. Harper Pitt (Marcia Gay Harden), pill-popping housewife and devout Mormon, has recurrent nightmares that a man with a knife is out to kill her; she also has real reason to fear that the man is her husband, Joe (David Marshall Grant), an ambitious young lawyer with a dark secret and aspirations to rise high in Ed Meese's Justice Department.
But even as Mr. Kushner portrays an America of lies and cowardice to match Cohn's cynical view, he envisions another America of truth and beauty, the paradise imagined by both his Jewish and Mormon characters' ancestors as they made their crossing to the new land. "Angels in America" not only charts the split of its two central couples but it also implicitly sets its two gay men with AIDS against each other in a battle over their visions of the future. While the fatalistic, self-loathing Cohn ridicules gay men as political weaklings with "zero clout" doomed to defeat, the younger, equally ill Prior sees the reverse. "I am a gay man, and I am used to pressure," he says from his sick bed. "I am tough and strong." Possessed by scriptural visions he describes as "very Steven Spielberg" even when in abject pain, Prior is Mr. Kushner's prophet of hope in the midst of apocalypse.
Though Cohn and Prior never have a scene together, they are the larger-than-life poles between which all of "Angels in America" swings. And they could not be more magnetically portrayed than they are in this production. Mr. Leibman, red-faced and cackling, is a demon of Shakespearean grandeur, an alternately hilarious and terrifying mixture of chutzpah and megalomania, misguided brilliance and relentless cunning. He turns the mere act of punching telephone buttons into a grotesque manipulation of the levers of power, and he barks out the most outrageous pronouncements ("I brought out something tender in him," he says of Joe McCarthy) with a shamelessness worthy of history's most indelible monsters.
Mr. Spinella is a boyish actor so emaciated that when he removes his clothes for a medical examination, some in the audience gasp. But he fluently conveys buoyant idealism and pungent drag-queen wit as well as the piercing, open-mouthed cries of fear and rage that arrive with the graphically dramatized collapse of his health. Mr. Spinella is also blessed with a superb acting partner in Mr. Mantello, who as his callow lover is a combustible amalgam of puppyish Jewish guilt and self-serving intellectual piety.
The entire cast, which includes Kathleen Chalfant and Jeffrey Wright in a variety of crisply observed comic cameos, is first rate. Ms. Harden's shattered, sleepwalking housewife is pure pathos, a figure of slurred thought, voice and emotions, while Mr. Grant fully conveys the internal warfare of her husband, torn between Mormon rectitude and uncontrollable sexual heat. When Mr. Wolfe gets both of the play's couples on stage simultaneously to enact their parallel, overlapping domestic crackups, "Angels in America" becomes a wounding fugue of misunderstanding and recrimination committed in the name of love.
But "Angels in America" is an ideal assignment for Mr. Wolfe because of its leaps beyond the bedroom into the fabulous realms of myth and American archetypes, which have preoccupied this director and playwright in such works as "The Colored Museum" and "Spunk." Working again with Robin Wagner, the designer who was an essential collaborator on "Jelly's Last Jam," Mr. Wolfe makes the action fly through the delicate, stylized heaven that serves as the evening's loose scenic environment, yet he also manages to make some of the loopier scenes, notably those involving a real-estate agent in Salt Lake City and a homeless woman in the South Bronx, sharper and far more pertinent than they have seemed before.
What has really affected "Angels in America" during the months of its odyssey to New York, however, is not so much its change of directors as Washington's change of Administrations. When first seen a year or so ago, the play seemed defined by its anger at the reigning political establishment, which tended to reward the Roy Cohns and ignore the Prior Walters. Mr. Kushner has not revised the text since -- a crony of Cohn's still boasts of a Republican lock on the White House until the year 2000 -- but the shift in Washington has had the subliminal effect of making "Angels in America" seem more focused on what happens next than on the past.
This is why any debate about what this play means or does not mean for Broadway seems, in the face of the work itself, completely beside the point. "Angels in America" speaks so powerfully because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake. It really is history that Mr. Kushner intends to crack open. He sends his haunting messenger, a spindly, abandoned gay man with a heroic spirit and a ravaged body, deep into the audience's heart to ask just who we are and just what, as the plague continues and the millennium approaches, we intend this country to become.
With "Angels in America," the final offering of the 1992-93 Broadway season, gay playwriting comes blazingly to the front lines of the American theater, restoring in the bargain some of Broadway's fading luster as the preeminent venue for important work. Believe the hype: This ambitious, unabashedly sprawling, provocative, frequently hilarious and urgently poignant play is as revelatory as its title suggests, both in its kaleidoscopic account of life in the Reagan '80s and its confirmation of a young writer's dazzling, generous vision.
This should not be a surprise, since the first part of "Angels,""Millennium Approaches," arrives with a pedigree that includes an acclaimed Royal National Theatre production last year and, last month, the Pulitzer Prize.
In between, it was presented last fall in a world premiere that included the second part, "Perestroika," at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
More awards will surely follow and the box office should remain strong enough to sanction plans calling for "Perestroika" to go into rehearsal during the summer, with the same company playing the two parts in repertory beginning in the fall.
In a world where heightened expectations -- and with a record-breaking top ticket price of $ 60, they will be exceptionally high -- are typically dashed, "Angels in America" delivers the theatrical goods in spades.
So what, exactly, is "Angels in America"? Kushner subtitles the work "a gay fantasia on national themes," and it certainly is that, a series of meditations on life, love, sex and politics set in 1985 and '86, when the full fury of AIDS was just beginning to be felt.
Kushner has a Shavian affection for digression and a genius for bringing together wildly disparate plotlines and motifs in original and satisfying ways that recalls the mock-apocalyptic novels of Thomas Pynchon.
"Millennium Approaches" takes an audience from New York to Utah and from the South Bronx to Antarctica; the talk during the journey ranges from love and betrayal to power in Washington, fine points of the law, Salt Lake City real estate and more.
And yet "Millennium Approaches" is really quite simple, the moving story of two disintegrating couples whose lives seem destined from the outset to become intertwined.
Joe Pitt (David Marshall Grant), chief clerk to an appeals court judge, finds that his growing alienation from wife Harper (Marcia Gay Harden) has as much to do with sexual ambivalence as with her Valium-induced withdrawal from the world.
Louis Ironson (Joe Mantello), a word processor for the court, finds himself unable to cope when his lover of four years, Prior Walter (Stephen Spinella), discovers the first lesion that indicates he has AIDS.
The fulcrum on which these two couples are balanced is lawyer Roy Cohn (Ron Liebman), Joe's mentor. Cohn is literally poised to fight for his life when he finds out -- not only that he has AIDS, but that the state is about to begin proceedings to disbar him.
Cohn wants to place the reluctant Joe at the Justice Dept. in Washington as a personal conduit to power during his ensuing battle.
It will, of course, take a gruesome death to finally yank Joe McCarthy's evil sidekick out of the closet, but along the way, Kushner has the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Kathleen Chalfant) visit Cohn's dreams.
Indeed, dreams, nightmares and visions play a huge role in this unfolding tale: Harper has a travel-agent friend (Jeffrey Wright) who appears to the accompaniment of a jazz bass to whisk her away to foreign places.
Prior imagines the ultimate family reunion, conjuring up prior Priors from the 13th and 18th centuries.
And yet for all its waves of whimsy and fervor, "Millennium" never really drifts far from the events that will finally bind Joe Pitt and Louis Ironson together, in one way, and Roy Cohn and Prior Walter, in another.
The old Broadway and the new converge in George C. Wolfe's spectacular production. Wolfe has found a clear line through these stories, and his staging is a paradigm of elegant story-telling (no matter how outrageous the story itself gets).
He's amply assisted by Robin Wagner, whose design is spare but beautiful, employing tall, wide panels that revolve to change the stage configuration as needed, and simple set pieces to suggest an office, a park at night, a hospital room -- or Antarctica and Salt Lake City -- all lighted with cool understatement by Jules Fisher.
The result is that Kushner's words and the actors who speak them have a seemingly direct link with the audience. Liebman, his face an almost plastic mask of nastiness, is wonderfully over-the-top as Cohn in the showiest role. But the quartet of spouses and lovers is also in perfect balance: The impossibly reed-like yet fiery Spinella, the brooding Mantello, the anguished, disappointed Grant and the flighty, desperate Harden.
All the actors play multiple roles, some of both sexes, and contributing to the fun -- and it should never be forgotten how much fun "Millennium Approaches" is -- are Chalfant, Wright and Ellen McLaughlin. Each is better in some roles than in others, but there is very little to quibble about in any aspect of the show.
It is McLaughlin who gets the ultimate entrance, in the play's final scene, descending on giant wings through the ceiling of Prior's bedroom to announce, "Greetings, Prophet. The great work begins; the messenger has arrived." That's an odd place to end a play, but it's a perfect Broadway welcome for Tony Kushner.