Monday, November 17, 2003

Angels on HBO

Frank Rich has a column today on HBO's upcoming adaptation of Tony Kushner's two-part play, "Angels in America."

I've been a rabid admirer of Kushner's since I first read and saw a theatrical producation of Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches back in high school. Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," it might turn off a few prospective viewers, but I remember it as a remarkably prescient, bold, and affecting piece of drama. It's over-the-top, extravagant, and grandiose as a drag queen pageant. None of your Chekhovian subtlety here. Kushner has that enviable ability to craft astonishing, exquisite dialogue somewhat in the mode of Tennessee Williams: not entirely realistic, but with a lyrical honesty that seems appropriate in the playwright's constructed universe.

Rich seems to think Angels in America, when it debuts, is going to cause a stink that will dwarf CBS' yanked Reagan spectacle:
If "Angels" reaches an audience typical for HBO hits, it could detonate a debate bloody enough to make the fight over "The Reagans" look like an exhibition bout.

That's not such a big if. "Angels" is the most powerful screen adaptation of a major American play since Elia Kazan's "Streetcar Named Desire" more than a half-century ago. It's been produced not only with stars but at four times the budget of "The Reagans." People are going to talk about it, and, as they do, HBO will replay it relentlessly to rake in more and more of the country.

Now, I don't know about all that. I know it's got Pacino and Streep and Emma Thompson on board, but all that star-power does not a "Streetcar" make. Let's not get too over-excited here. But Rich has seen it, and he's an old fan of the work, so I'm excited to hear that he approves. As for this Reagan controversy re: Ronnie hates AIDS victims, I have to say I'm not interested. Although this play is a very political work, it is still primarily an artistic work, and I'd hate to see the conservative squall obscure that.

It has been a long time since I've read or seen Angels, so I am a little hesitant. Since virtually everything that I thought was fantastic in high school (Ayn Rand, clarinet reeds) has turned out to be mildly embarassing, I never know if I ought to recommend something that so delighted my youthfully naive, pre-ironically detached self. Rich seems to understand:
I can't say I expected to find "Angels in America" this affecting in 2003. Plays you love don't always hold up years later, particularly those tied in any way to headlines. Great plays almost never make good films. But even when Mr. Nichols's version lags — as it does at times in the second half, in part because the female characters are not as deeply acted as the men [and in part because sprawling Part II is a let-down from the tightly constructed Part I ]— any failings pale next to the grandeur of the larger achievement. This is a work big enough to walk around in again and again, and ravishing to watch even when its heavenly interludes threaten to go over the top. It hasn't dated a whit. When Mr. Kushner, in anticipation of the millennium, wrote the line, "History is about to crack wide open," he saw around a corner the rest of us could not. And what he found there is more important than ever: not just terror, but a possibility of hope in which love, God and a bedrock belief in the American ideal of justice all come into play. At one point Belize (Jeffrey Wright), Cohn's black gay nurse, complains that the "white cracker who wrote the national anthem" set the word "free" to "a note so high nobody could reach it." But Mr. Kushner does reach it here, and it is piercing.

Unfortunately my 3-month trial on HBO has run out, so I'm searching for DC-area HBO subscribers that are willing to lend their couches for a three-and-a-half hour gay fantasia.

UPDATE: In the interest of thwarting any misguided respondents, that last phrase was really not supposed to sound like a personal ad.


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