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Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches Paperback – May 1, 1993
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`Angels in America, Pt. 1: Millennium Approaches' is, linguistically speaking, a much more accessible play. But it still suffers (as perhaps all plays must) from the lack of description beyond the words. In this regard, plays are very much more like poetry - they tend to latch on to single elements rather than taking the fuller form of narrative, and leave the rest to the imagination of the reader.
Tony Kushner's play is imaginative. Like great playwrights of old, he takes contemporary situations and figures and embellishes them, keeping faith with the overall meanings in society and the overall characters he's using, but is careful to make it known that this is a work of fiction.
We begin the play, staged (we are told) in the barest of scenery with a minimum of scene shifting and no black-outs - imagine, if you will, almost a stream of consciousness as the play progress - there is a funeral. A Jewish funeral. Not an unusual scene in New York, but the Rabbi doesn't know the woman, and so gives generic funereal orations.
Scene shifts to the office of Roy Cohn (alas, an all too real figure, but this is, Kushner emphasises, a fictional account). Here we encounter the high-powered, high-strung Cohn in his glorious best (or worst) while Joe (a conservative Mormon lawyer) is being chatted up for a job, which would put him in Cohn's debt.
Scene shifts - we see Joe's wife Harper planning a trip with a travel agent, Mr. Lies.
And so forth - in the course of this tale, we meet several people who are in various stages of AIDS. This is the meaning of the play. We encounter out gays and closeted gays, poor gays and rich gays, and the occasional straight suffering person, too. Often we have scene shifts and double scenes with two sets of action going on simultaneously. The moral issues of life with AIDS (which, as it happens, often reflect the moral issues of life more generally) are played out in political, social and religious terms.
Take, for instance, Louis, who attends the funeral (conducted by the Rabbi), who is contemplating leaving his lover Prior, who has started to show symptoms. The interplay between Louis and the Rabbi shows differing ideas not only between religions but also within religions toward difficulties.
Later, Cohn launches into an extended tale to his doctor of how he couldn't possibly be a homosexual:
`This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who now nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?'
Ultimately, denial is deep with Cohn.
Doctor: You have AIDS, Roy.
Cohn: No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.
Ultimately, issues of drug access, relationship building and deterioration, and the overall morality of life is played out among the characters. Perhaps the image of Ethel Rosenberg, who appears to Cohn in one of his weakened delusional states, says it best:
History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.
The play concludes as an Angel makes a traumatic entry at the end (the cracking open that Rosenberg mentions, perhaps?) appearing to Prior, after we have witnessed Prior's now ex-lover Louis making a connection with our conservative Mormon lawyer Joe.
There is a message. We the audience are not told what it is.
Kushner not only brilliantly captures real personalities while dealing with fantasy, but also relates them to the complicated, sometimes heartless world in which they exist. He poignantly addresses the loneliness and loss that is living, but does so with a sharp humor that keeps the pages rapidly turning. Angels in America is an incredible dramatic masterpiece that challenges a transformation of the soul into a true reflection of who we really are.
'Millenium Approaches' won a Pulitzer for Kushner, and it's easy to see why. It's an amazingly literate discourse and masterful interweaving of three strands of gay life in America as it stood before triple therapy arrived and slowed down the impact of AIDS.
By contrast, 'Perestroika' feels different and distant - lots of soliloquies, extreme anger, archsymbolism - I felt like the high point of the six-hour spread was the angel's dramatic appearance at the end of 'Millenium.'
Remembering back to the play, I think all the actors in Nichols adaptation really found new levels for each of their characters. For example, Pacino nailed Roy Cohn's perverse sense of logic: homosexuals (and you can hear the quotes around it when Pacino utters the word) have no power; I have power; I am not a homosexual; therefore, I do not have AIDS, I have liver cancer. I've read Cohn's biography and this is truly the way he saw things. Kushner has him nailed & Pacino really captures the essence of Kushner's words.
The other thing worth noting is that Mary-Louise Parker does wonders with the role of Harper Pitt. I remember thinking of the character as overwhelmed on stage (compared to the other actors), but, wow, does she stand out in Nichols' adaptation. It's the best performance in the film, in my eyes.