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There are no Angels in America

Well, and Your Humble Blogger has finished watching the television adaptation of Angels in America. I thought we could go over it a little, because I’m still struggling.

First of all, I think the play is one of the greatest theatrical works of a generation or more. It’s an amazing piece. I saw the national touring company of Part One (Millenium Approaches) ten years ago or so, and shortly afterward I saw a very good college production in a small black box theater. I’ve never seen Perestroika on stage. I have read them both several times. I enjoy reading plays, tho’ I don’t do it much these days. I usually find it easy to imagine a staging as I read, even for plays such as Angels that have a lot of stuff to imagine.

Back when the plays were coming to Broadway, YHB was still hoping to become a professional stage actor. I hoped to play Roy Cohn someday. Of course for ten years or so I was working on my acceptance speech for the Antoinette Perry award for Featured Actor in a Play (I also kept updating and polishing my acceptance speech for the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of President of the United States and the Charge to the Graduating Class at Swarthmore College; they are all three somewhat out of date at present, but I don’t think I need to work on them). My point is that these plays were Big Deals back then for Theater People (or Theatre People, the bastards). I don’t know what they are now.

Anyway, I was wondering if any Gentle Readers had seen the video without first seeing or reading the plays. I wonder how much my own response to the film is rooted in it being not-a-play, and how much is in the specific interpretation on film. I do think that the marvelous special effects take away from the power of the thing; when the Angel looks like every other woman-with-wings in any movie that has women-with-wings, it’s hard to invest her with angelness, but when she is hanging from a wire harness with obviously phony wings, she is an angel. As one of the characters says, it’s the magic of the theater.

Also, the fact that they could, and did, film all around the City meant that there was a tremendous amount of space. Things happened where they happened, in people’s apartments, or on the street, or in the hospital, or in Antarctica, or in heaven. In the theater, it all happens on stage, which means it all happens in the same place. There’s a sense of closeness. Early on, when Prior and Harper hallucinate together, and then start talking to each other, it’s an amazing moment, because I (in the audience) am shocked into a perceptual shift between the two scenes sharing the stage and there only being one scene. Similarly, there’s an amazingly powerful (and brutal) scene in Part One where the two couples are fighting, the lines interleaved, one couple in a hospital room, one in an apartment, but they are commenting on each other’s fight, and on each other, although they don’t know it. On stage, when I saw it first, Prior was in a bed up left, Harper was standing down right, and Joe and Louis (who have just found each other, although they won’t admit it) pace and circle. They walk in and out of each other’s space, they dance, unknowing, they leave their partners and match each other in their anger, and it’s magnificent and heartbreaking and it can’t be done on film.

Now, there are lovely bits of filmmaking that the theater couldn’t do. The precision of the lighting, the incredible makeup work. But then we need the film to do that stuff, because we can’t supply it ourselves. If the makeup isn’t perfect in the movie, we don’t fill it in ourselves, we complain. If the rabbi is clearly a woman in drag, well, that’s not really a problem in the theater, but for the movie they had to get it right. Which they did. Although I’m cross that they cut the rabbi’s scene in part two, but there it is. They had to get the thing down to six hours, and they didn’t want to rush the gorgeous scenery, of which there was plenty. They cut Roy Cohn in Hell, too. And some other stuff. Did they leave in the line about how we are all Reagan’s children now? I loved that speech.

I don’t know. It was good, it was brutal and funny and heartbreaking, and despite not liking Al Pacino’s choices as Roy Cohn (he reminded me of Big Boy Caprice, which may be my favorite of his roles) or particularly liking Meryl Streep’s Ethel Rosenberg (although her Hannah Pitt was excellent), when she sang tum balalaika I cried like anything, and when she helped (Ben Shenkman as) Louis say kaddish I cried again. Oh, it’s a beautifully written play. It’s a magnificent play, with magnificent language. It’s a play that should be read, although after you see it, I think. I would call it Shakespearean, only it isn’t, it’s Kushnerian, it’s its own thing, sui generis. It takes into itself how people actually speak day-to-day (as with a wonderfully stunted, almost Mamet-like conversation between Louis and Joe in a bathroom in the federal courthouse) without limiting itself to naturalism. People in the play speak the way they ought to speak, the way we might be able to imagine them speaking. That’s easier to accept on stage, I think. But then, all of this is pretty much me saying ‘play good, movie bad’, and although I think there is a good deal of truth to that, it isn’t a helpful bit of simplicity.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I had the opportunity to see the play when it opened in LA, but it was a special "bonus" play, rather than being part of the regular season subscription, so because I was a cheap idiot person, I didn't shell out the extra bucks to go see it.

So, I did eventually see the HBO version, without having seen the play, and liked the movie(s?) a lot. I'd like to see the play some time, though.

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