Tony Kushner, Angels in America (Theatre Communications Group, 1995)
I have this perhaps odd habit any time I get a new book: I must examine it completely before I begin reading it. I’m not sure why — perhaps it has to do with savoring the experience of reading, delaying my literary fulfillment but a few moments longer just when satisfaction is so clearly in my grasp. I read the cover blurbs, the inside blurbs, and any extraneous information that I’m sure won’t ruin any important parts of the story. I was so sure that I was going to enjoy Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (and I was so entirely right) that I could barely restrain myself from madly dashing into the opening dialogue. Yet I savored my opening ritual, and so came to notice the engaging subtleties of this play right off.
I read the cast of characters, not missing that there are twenty-one parts in the first book, twenty-six in the second, and only eight actors. That is because one actor will play several parts, skewing your expectation and interpretation of each individual. Herein begins the journey of illusion and revelation: Tony Kushner has created multi-faceted beings merely by using a skeleton crew for a vast cast. (There is only one character who escapes being multiple people in the first part; this is because he is only as he is presented. Not until the second part is he presented as other characters, thus depicting one character’s development and deepening.)
The play, broadly, is about humanity: more specifically, about Americans (“in the melting pot where nothing melted” as a Rabbi states in the first scene). The lens through which humanity is examined is the homosexual community and the AIDS outbreak during the Reagan years. So, what then makes this mythical fiction? The angels: in all their glory, their grand trumpeting, and pulsating sexuality.
AIDS and angels are the fulcrum upon which the story moves. Religion is touched on, as it must be in any story involving the dead and dying, damnation and redemption. Yet no particular spirituality is given higher credence than any others: the angels neither confirm nor deny a particular faith’s ideals. Each person who struggles with spirituality is depicted as a human struggling to make the right choices — there are no overbearing moral judgments made on the grounds of this play.
Simple human life, our decisions and mistakes, are also important to the purpose of this play: the characters, though certainly each on their own path of development, weave in and out of each other’s lives, intimately — if only sometimes as metaphors rather than tangible individuals.
What surely makes this play, in addition to the dialogue, are the special effects. Of course, you wouldn’t see those reading the play, but the directorial notes on the subject are fascinating. Kushner intentionally juxtaposes the almost severe austerity of reality with the lush illusion of the Angel: he strongly suggests that any producer of his play should act the part of the minimalist in designing the majority of the sets. However, the divine moments of revelation should be fully realized instances of stage magic: when the angel first appears on stage, for example, the stage notes call for tumultuous noise, the caving in of part of a ceiling, an array of brilliant lighting, and the actor to descend into the room and float over the bed “spreading great opalescent gray-silver wings.”
While dealing with such heavy topics as life gone awry, AIDS, and betrayal, humor still has its place. While at times unbearably sad (but masterfully written), a grin is still lurking around the corner, whether in a witty turn of phrase or an outright joke. The characters can only take the pain of living and the terror of the unfamiliar for so long before they dig their heels in and mutter something ridiculous or shout something so brave as to be surprisingly funny.
It is of interest to note that, as of this writing, the play has recently been produced as an HBO miniseries. It must be said that they employ more actors than are called for and their sets are, naturally, fully realized, but the story suffers nothing from these departures and is still wonderfully performed.
I definitely would recommend this work (including the HBO miniseries) to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking and contemporary deconstructions of human and spiritual issues that are relevant today. Though the story exists on several levels, the play is also suitable for anyone seeking an enjoyable mythic drama.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on March 7th, 2004.