Power of 'Angels' intact
By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published December 14, 2003
You've got to give director Mike Nichols and HBO credit for the film adaptation of Tony Kushner's celebrated play Angels in America. I must admit that when I heard that the cast featured superstars Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, as terrific as they are, I had some doubts. This could easily have turned into another posh made-for-TV drama long on self-congratulation and short on depth.
Like a lot of people who saw Angels on Broadway - as well as, in my case, the national tour and several regional productions - I think it is the most powerful theatrical experience I've ever had. Part of my connection to the play is tied up with my fondness for the original performances by then-little-known actors Stephen Spinella, Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin and Joe Mantello. Only the magnificent Jeffrey Wright duplicates his stage role, as the nurse Belize, in the film.
But not to worry. I should have known that with Kushner deeply involved in the production the integrity of his two-part "gay fantasia on national themes" (a subtitle of the play that has been dropped from the movie) would remain intact. Instead of lamenting the absence of Angels casts of the past, I have a new one to savor, and to compare.
Perestroika airs tonight on HBO. It and the first part, Millennium Approaches, will be repeated in coming weeks on the cable channel. At times, it will be possible to see the entire six-hour epic in one fell swoop, an experience I recommend, having taken in the whole play in a day once with the tour and another time with a San Francisco company.
In some ways, Nichols and Kushner, who labored on the screenplay for years, have improved Angels' narrative imperative (a phrase an editor of mine once used to describe the what-happens-next pacing a good story has). Onstage, Perestroika in particular could get bogged down, and I was surprised how gripping I found the second part of the movie.
Kushner did a fair amount of rearranging of his text for the screen, and a few things were sacrificed to speed things up, such as the bearded character called the World's Oldest Bolshevik, whose posing of the "Great Question before us. . . . Can we Change? In Time?" opens the stage version of Perestroika. In a play full of long, rabbinical speeches, this is a perfectly understandable cut. Still, I missed the loony metaphysical theorizing.
One of Angels' trademarks is the casting of actors in multiple parts, especially the women who play men. Onstage, the actors were more clearly identifiable as women playing men in each of their roles, enhancing Kushner's gender-bending, drag-queen theme. On Broadway, Chalfant was sensationally incisive in the roles of Hannah Pitt, a rabbi, Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn's doctor.
Streep, Chalfant's counterpart in the movie (though she doesn't play the doctor), is wonderful, especially as Rosenberg, but so complete was her costuming and makeup as the rabbi that I didn't know it was her until the credits rolled.
In the movie, Thompson has the thankless part of the Angel, and she gives it her feisty best, but the razzle-dazzle effects often overpower - or make ridiculous - the performance. So much better was McLaughlin's imposing stage Angel, more visual metaphor than actual character.
Cohn is Kushner's greatest creation, a vulgar, comic Lear, and Pacino is marvelous, as you would expect. He was born to play the red-baiting, closeted gay lawyer, but, it must be said, so were any number of other fine actors. Ron Leibman on Broadway, Jonathan Hadary in the touring company and several regional actors I have seen brought their own lusty power to this brilliantly written character.
And then there's Cohn's protege, Joe Pitt, the young Mormon lawyer played in the movie by Patrick Wilson, bound to become a major star as a result. For his friends in St. Petersburg, where Wilson was raised, it must be a remarkable sensation to see the young man they know from church concerts and school plays, and in recent years Broadway musicals, in such a charismatic performance, one that announces him as something like his generation's version of a young Paul Newman. Wilson has scenes in the movie - Joe's winter beach encounter with his lover, Louis, is one - that will be included in anthologies of great acting 25 years from now.
The argument can be made that the pivotal character of Angels is not its hero, Prior, the gay man with AIDS played by Spinella on Broadway and by Justin Kirk in the movie. As appealing and funny as the character is, his epilogue at the Bethesda Fountain is awfully trite for a prophet; it is the one dramaturgical problem Kushner never solved.
Nor is the pivotal character Louis, who is Kushner's political mouthpiece, hilariously played by Mantello on Broadway and Ben Shenkman on TV.
Instead, I think Harper, Joe's pill-popping estranged wife (the luminous Mary-Louise Parker in the movie), is the key to Angels. Perhaps my favorite speech is Harper's last one, after she leaves Joe, delivered from her window seat on a night flight to San Francisco:
"In this world, there is a kind of painful progress," she says. "Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."
Whenever I hear Harper's heartbreaking but hopeful speech, shivers run up and down my spine. Like so much else in this monumental work, it is beautiful and wise and true, and as moving onscreen as onstage.
AT A GLANCE
The second part of Angels in America airs at 8 tonight on HBO.
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