Meryl Streep: We all know the woman can act. But playing various roles (a rabbi, Ethel Rosenberg, a Mormon mom) in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America, the Academy fave is freshly magnificent. And though Al Pacino may resort to screaming and slamming his fist on tables too much lately, he shines as well in his depiction of right-wing McCarthyite-turned-AIDS victim Roy Cohn.
But the on-screen heart and soul of this 1980s AIDS in America tale rests in the arms of the less famous cast members. Unless you take in a lot of theater or were one of a handful of fans of The WB’s Jack & Jill, you probably aren’t too familiar with Justin Kirk — which might explain why his turn as AIDS-stricken pseudo-prophet Prior is all the more powerful. Same for Patrick Wilson, who is hauntingly believable as a Mormon Reaganite struggling with his sexuality.
Bringing along Broadway’s brightest — among them Ben Shenkman (who delivers a harrowing portrayal of Prior’s conflicted lover), and Tony award winner Jeffrey Wright (who sizzles as Prior’s nurse/ex-boyfriend, Belize) — is the highlight of the stage-to-screen transition. There may be a few moments when characters talk too much at each other, but let’s not quibble: Nichols’ adaptation is as seamless as one could hope for with a six-hour production. Even Prior’s jarring final speech, delivered straight to the camera, works. But disappointingly, there’s nary a bonus feature to be found. C’mon, who doesn’t want to see behind-the-scenes footage of Streep dressing up like an old bearded rabbi?