Conservative Mormon folks from Salt Lake City, liberal Jewish queers from New York: polar opposites in the American political and psychosexual landscape.
Without forfeiting its political agenda, Tony Kushner's Angels in America merges the opposites, understanding and blessing all Americans, whichever way the wind of their sexual orientation blows, whatever color state they may live in. Kushner doesn't exactly have pro- and anti-gay forces singing Kumbaya - but he does have them holding hands (and more), not making assumptions, not demonizing the other guy simply out of hateful reflex.
That's the habit of Louis, the liberal-propaganda-spouting half of an NYC gay couple; Louis may love Prior, but Prior is dying of AIDS, so Louis leaves him. Then there's the seemingly straight Mormon couple: Joe loves Harper, but Joe, a Reagan-admiring lawyer, is in denial about his own homosexual yearnings, so Harper leaves him. Joe clerks for Roy Cohn, the crooked, power-mongering monster-lawyer who spewed venom at Communists because he hated being gay in a society that rendered gay men not only powerless but unspeakable.
Al Pacino (Satanic and mesmerizing as Cohn), Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson (who play three roles each) -- the marquee names are all exceptional. But it's the lesser-knowns who round out Angels' great ensemble: Patrick Wilson as Joe, Justin Kirk as Prior and especially Jeffrey Wright as Belize, Roy's nurse and Prior's former lover.
The subtitle of this two-play work, "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," is political, unabashedly pro-gay and dream-like. At one point, Harper and Prior "meet" inside one another's hallucinations. She pops pills to cope with the disappointment of having married a gay man; he's a gay man, delirious because he's dying of AIDS.
"In my church, we don't believe in homosexuals," says Harper.
"In my church, we don't believe in Mormons," Prior replies, partly anticipating a time when there won't be any more people condemning love: Everyone sanctified in the American dream. We're at our best, after all, when we acknowledge the spark of the divine in others -- even if they voted for Reagan, even if they're voting for Kerry, even if they're Roy Cohn, even if they're gay or Mormon or both.
Angels in America is the best American play in a generation; Mike Nichols' production of Angels for HBO matches its achievement, definitively.
Publication date: 09/30/04