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TV Review: Towering 'Angels' HBO version rises to the occasion with revisions and starry cast

Sunday, December 07, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This is one of those rare times when even a partisan of live theater sings hosannas for what TV can do. But it isn't really TV that I've come to praise -- it's HBO, which can do what TV would never attempt.


"Angels in America"

When: Part 1, "Millennium Approaches," premieres from 8 to 11 tonight; Part 2, "Perestroika," premieres from 8 to 11 p.m. next Sunday. Part 1 also airs in three one-hour segments at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday, and Part 2 the same way, Dec. 15-17.
Starring: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson, Mary-Louise Parker.

Related article

Transforming stage play for TV proved daunting for playwright Kushner


Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America" was the great play of the 1990s and remains one of the greatest American plays ever -- really two plays, individually named "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika." At just under six hours, playing in two installments, tonight and next Sunday, the HBO version is painful, funny, passionate, politically charged and intensely personal.

It's absorbing and exhausting. The tears I felt welling up in the latter stages of a preview tape came equally from pain and pleasure, as Kushner's charged mix of individual struggle and public prophecy gathers momentum to a dizzying climax of denunciation and absolution.

Be warned that "Angels" includes nudity (male and female), graphic illness, raw language and angry politics.

And it demands commitment. We are used to taking our TV in bits and snatches, but I doubt "Angels" works if you dip in and out. You need to take the whole trip, preferably in the two three-hour segments -- or record it and do it all in one day.

That it does work so well is surprising, because it began as an almost ostentatiously theatrical event, mixing realistic storytelling and fabulous flights of fancy, variously historical, spiritual and hallucinatory. Its success is due in equal measures to Kushner's revised and slimmed-down film script, Mike Nichols' sensitive, bold direction and the emotional clarity of its starry cast.

That cast gets a workout.

It's 1985-86, the age of Reagan. The central story is about Prior Walter, from a centuries-old Anglo family, and Louis Ironson, scion of Jewish immigrants. When Prior develops the still-mysterious illness known as AIDS, Louis leaves him. The second couple is Joe Pitt, a Mormon lawyer, chief clerk for a justice in a federal Court of Appeals, and his wife, Harper, an agoraphobic who's been driven to Valium by Joe's coldness. We all realize Joe is gay before he can admit it himself. Harper takes refuge in hallucinations.

Joe is being courted by Roy Cohn, a fictionalized version of the real-life right-wing Republican lawyer and power broker, notorious as an aide to Joseph McCarthy and persecutor of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Cohn wants to insert Joe into Ed Meese's Justice Department to protect his flank. While being treated for AIDS-related illness, Prior begins having visions of an impending heavenly visit. His friend and supporter, Belize, a black drag queen, is a nurse in the hospital where Cohn is admitted, also with AIDS.

The spirit of Ethel Rosenberg appears to witness Cohn's death. An Angel appears to Prior and names him prophet. Joe and Louis pair up. Joe's Mormon mother arrives from Salt Lake City and, much to her surprise, befriends Prior. ("This is my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother," he says. "Even in New York in the '80s, that's strange," says his nurse.) The Angel explains the world's chaos -- God hasn't been seen since 1906 -- but Prior rejects his heavenly commission. Louis gradually fights his way back to Prior through waves of guilt. Cohn dies, with Louis and Ethel to say Kaddish, the Jewish mourners' prayer.

And that's not all of it. You may resist, but the characters seize your interest and sympathy, even the repellent Cohn. What synopsis cannot do is describe the humor and brains of Kushner's astonishing inventions and ironies and the many articulate thoughts on politics, America, religion and history.

"Angels" draws on deep American roots of idealism, prophecy and apocalypse, with particular indebtedness to Jewish, Mormon and Calvinist traditions. Gone is the play's original subtitle, "a gay fantasia on national themes," but still central is the alienated urban gay stance, at its sharpest in Belize, from which to critique the mainstream.

In opening the story up into film, some of the play's theatricality has been pruned, doubtless wisely, given the realistic bias of the screen. Harper's retreats into Antarctic hallucination don't loom as large as on stage, and Prior's appearance before the Council of Continental Principalities (i.e., supervisory angels) has been thinned. Gone is the striking defense of theory by the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik. But "Angels" has been a text in flux since it was developed through various productions in San Francisco, London and New York, 1990-93. The 1993-94 TCG text already includes suggestions for cuts, and Kushner has said that his pruned screenplay will effect the next published version of the script.

The eight lead actors are evenly balanced. The story really turns on the three young men, all 30-ish -- Justin Kirk's handsome, impassioned Prior; Ben Shenkman's sardonic, intellectualizing Louis; and Patrick Wilson's tormented, all-American Joe. Jeffrey Wright (the only holdover from Broadway) is a sweetly subversive Belize, and Mary-Louise Parker is a heartbreakingly youthful Harper. Meryl Streep's Mormon mother is softer than Kathleen Chalfant was on Broadway, but Al Pacino's Cohn is a tower of ferocious contempt. As the Angel, Emma Thompson is both visceral and glorious.

The theatricality of the play allowed a lot of doubling, and it is to Nichols' credit that some survives. Streep absolutely disappears into the person of an aged, wry rabbi, and her Ethel Rosenberg has a creepy composure. Wright is a funny travel agent and Thompson a compassionate nurse. Among roles originally doubled but now cast separately, James Cromwell plays Cohn's doctor and Michael Gambon and Simon Callow have fun as two prior Priors who also suffered from the plague, medieval and 17th-century versions.

Yes, there are losses. On stage, "Angels" felt incisively political, a rarity in a country that prefers personality politics to anything substantive. On screen, the personal takes over -- the political debates that feel so illuminating on stage now seem more like personality quirks. Likewise, the hallucinations and heavenly interventions are here more obviously "explained" as functions of character.

But the metaphors and rich historical parallels are still there for those interested. And the personal dilemmas of Prior, Louis, Joe and Harper gain an immediacy and poignancy it's hard to resist.

"Angels" ends with an epilogue bringing the characters forward to 1990. After seeing them on HBO, it's natural to hope that Kushner may visit them again at a later date.

Post-Gazette Drama Critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at 412-263-1666 or

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