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Transforming stage play for TV proved daunting for playwright Kushner

Sunday, December 07, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- The epic, two-part early '90s stage play "Angels in America" comes to HBO tonight as a six-hour miniseries, written for the screen by Tony Kushner, the playwright responsible for the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning stage version.


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Directed by Mike Nichols ("Catch-22," "Silkwood," "Working Girl"), the first three hours, "Millennium Approaches," premiere at 8 tonight, followed by the concluding three hours, "Perestroika," next Sunday.

"Angels" follows multiple characters in 1985-86 dealing with the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community. Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) has the disease but insists he's being treated for liver cancer. His protege Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) is a closeted gay Mormon whose emotional coldness unbalances his wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), who takes refuge in Valium. The central couple is AIDS-infected Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) and his unsupportive boyfriend, Louis (Ben Shenkman).

Several of the actors play multiple roles, including Meryl Streep, whose largest part is that of Joe Pitt's mother, and Emma Thompson, who plays both a nurse and an angel.

Kushner said writing the script for the "Angels" miniseries marked his first attempt at a screenplay, and it came in 90 minutes shorter than the stage version. With the help of director Nichols, he made the most changes to "Perestroika," changes he refused to pinpoint at an HBO press conference in July, but he said they will be incorporated into the play the next time it's published.

"There's one scene -- I don't want to say which one it was, because I don't want everybody to sort of pay special attention to it -- but if you compare the [play's] script and the film, you can actually figure it out," Kushner said. "It's just a scene that had never really, really worked on stage."

Adapting the play at all proved a challenge. At one point, Kushner said, director Robert Altman attempted to make it into a big-screen movie, but neither he nor Kushner felt that the adaptation worked, so it was abandoned.

"There's kind of an automatic thing that happens when you have a successful play; it's sort of immediately purchased by someone in Hollywood and turned into a film," Kushner said. "It just seemed silly to resist that originally, and then it didn't happen and I sort of gave up on the idea and I felt fine about it not being translated into film."

Now that it has been filmed and will be seen by a wider audience on television than would have seen it on stage, Kushner said he's "terrified."

"I'm used to thinking on a sort of theater scale," he said. "Thousands of people saw the play, probably hundreds of thousands by now. But the idea that at one moment a few million might be watching ... I just put my fingers in my ears and hum to myself when that's being discussed.

"The fact that it's on television preserves the kind of intimacy [it had on stage]. And the relationship between the televised event and the audience is a very intimate one, and that returns it to something that I'm familiar with, because theater is an art about intimacy. I'd be much more frightened if it was in IMAX."

Acclaimed actors Pacino and Streep had never worked on a project together before "Angels." Pacino said he always liked the stage play, and appearing in the film version appealed to him mostly because of the opportunity to work with Kushner's words.

"There's a language of film, which I guess has more to do with naturalism, and it's easier to improvise in movies because hopefully, if you improvise and it works, it will be on film. If it doesn't, they can just discard it," Pacino said. "But with Tony's work, it's so profound and the rhythm and iambic of the words are necessary to bring off the feeling of it and the idea of it, that you really have to know the words. You have to be able to absorb them in such a way that you can release them without having to think about learning them while you're doing it."

With medical advances in AIDS treatment in the past decade, "Angels" might seem out of step with the times, but Kushner said it was always intended as a look back at a specific era. He said "Angels" was written in the late '80s and was always meant to be set in 1985 and 1986.

"The play has always been about a very specific historical period," he said. "It describes a period ... that has long since gone."

If watching "Angels" in three-hour chunks is too much of a time commitment, HBO will make each hour available individually.

HBO will air "Millennium Approaches" spread over three nights at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday. "Perestroika" will air individually at 8 p.m. Dec. 15, 16 and 17. For additional air dates and times, visit

Nichols said producers worked with HBO to devise a schedule for airing "Angels," but he and the cast members do have a preference.

"I think you should pack as much as you can into one [viewing]," Streep said. "I think you should watch three hours and then watch three hours. There is an ideal way because the characters do make a journey."

TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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