Sunday, Dec. 7 & 14, 8 p.m. (HBO)
Adapting contemporary plays for television (when done at all) is always tough. TV reduces everything to naturalism, and so any leap into the sort of heightened reality an audience might accept from actors distant, spot-lit, and declaiming on a stage can come off as hokey, pretentious, or God forbid, difficult in the close-up, lowered reality of the medium that brings us ”Average Joe” and ”Punk’d.” But to adapt ”Angels in America” — Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-and Tony-winning multipart phantasmagoria of love, AIDS, Roy Cohn, and divine intervention — and then funnel this profane, droll, slapstick, soul-shaking creation through a TV screen for six hours (even if those six hours are in the tonier precincts of ”It’s not TV. It’s HBO”), well, that’s pretty tricky.
Yet Kushner (as his own artfully ruthless adapter) and director Mike Nichols haven’t merely pulled it off; they’ve created a chunk of television for the ages. ”Angels in America” is set in the latter half of 1980s Manhattan and centers on the AIDS-ravaged life of Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), who’s abandoned by his lover, Louis (Ben Shenkman). The production’s big stars are Al Pacino as lawyer Roy Cohn (the Joe McCarthy hatchet man and preeminent New York power player who was a gay homophobe and died of AIDS) and Meryl Streep in a number of roles, most notably as Ethel Rosenberg (the accused spy whom Cohn successfully crusaded to have executed) and Hannah, the Mormon mother of a closeted gay man. ”The West Wing”’s Mary-Louise Parker is the pill-popping, depressive wife of that man, a strapping all-American joe named Joe, played by Patrick Wilson. And yes, there really is an angel — of death, of hope, of ”the end of things,” embodied by Emma Thompson with enormous wings, given to smashing through ceilings while looking appropriately appalled and rather turned-on by her own power.
Mixing historical figures with flesh-and-bloody fictional ones, including Jeffrey Wright as a wittily queeny hospital nurse (he and Thompson, like Streep, handle multiple roles), ”Angels” plays like a classic while retaining an urgent timeliness. Kushner must feel bitter vindication that his livid indictment of the Reagan administration’s parsimonious record on AIDS research arrives on television just as CBS caved in on a Reagan biopic that dared to suggest the same point. I’m tempted to be flip and say this is Nichols’ best movie since ”Working Girl.” The thing is, ”Working Girl” was a damn good, funny New York City movie; Nichols uses this damn good, funny New York City sensibility to add coherence and believability to ”Angels” — qualities that are necessary to sell the extravagantly magisterial material (which courts anarchy and unbelievability) to a television audience. Again and again, Nichols raises his omniscient, godlike camera up and away from the actors, making it soar high over the island of Manhattan to reinforce two of Kushner’s central ideas: We are marooned together in this world; and there had better be something out there bigger than ourselves, because we are neurotic, selfish, suffering people in need of love, grace, and forgiveness.
”An angel is a belief,” Streep’s Hannah says toward the end, ”with wings and arms that can carry you.” You’ll be transported by Kushner’s language, arias of desire and fury and lamentation. You’ll also be carried away not only by Streep’s exquisite ambivalence and Pacino’s growl that turns steadily, painfully into a howl (his work here is worlds away from the self-parody he’s succumbed to in recent movies) but also by the finely tuned performances of Kirk and Shenkman. These two must not be neglected in the superstar huzzahs, for they so nimbly carry the burden of ordinary-guy agony and yearning in ”Angels”’ world, where, as Parker’s character says, ”anything can happen. Any awful thing.”
In interviews, Kushner has cited influences as various as Melville, Brecht, and Walt Whitman, but it struck me that there is also something in ”Angels” of William Blake (in the latter’s grandly didactic ”prophetic books”), Allen Ginsberg (in the erotic, Jewish, yammering wit), and especially the D.H. Lawrence of Studies in Classic American Literature. ”Art-speech is the only truth,” asserts Lawrence; it’s a great phrase, ”art-speech” — that’s precisely what Kushner writes. And one entire interpretation of ”Angels in America” could be summarized by these two sentences of Lawrence’s: ”It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not.” In this ”Angels” for all of America, Tony Kushner shouts ”No! Yes!” in thunder.