A scene from HBO's Angels in America (courtesy photo)

Tony Kushner's stairway to heaven screens on cable channel HBO

When the Oscars are handed out next year, the best and most innovative American film of 2003 won't be among the honored. The reason is simple: Angels in America is a original film made for television.

But what a bold new breed of television it is. If the recent brouhaha over The Reagans proved anything, it was that network TV hasn't lived up to the creative and spirited programming that cable provides.

Angels doesn't blink. It addresses issues that bedeviled America during the Reagan era of the 1980s: from the rise of the specter of AIDS and the civil rights struggle of gay people to the spiritual malaise of TV evangelism and its greed-is-good philosophy.

You might say television has come a long way since then. But as far back as 1993, while Angels was on Broadway, HBO aired And the Band Played On, based on Randy Shilt's groundbreaking work on the origins of the AIDS crisis. It also cited the failure of then-President Reagan to address this issue only after 25,000 Americans had died from the disease.

Fast forward 10 years: HBO will air Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play, Angels in America, in a two-part, six-hour mini-series. (Part one is due on Sunday, December 7, while the second part debuts on December 14, with repeats of both throughout December.)

Meryl Streep stars as Hannah Pitt in Angels (courtesy photo)

In part one, "Millennium Approaches," Louis and Prior, a gay couple, break up after Prior contracts AIDS. "It's 1986 and there's a plague, half my friends are dead, and I'm only 31. This is real. It isn't just an impossible, terrible dream." Meanwhile, Louis seeks advice from a rabbi. "What does the Holy Writ say when someone abandons who he loves in a time of great need?" The rabbi advises him to seek out a priest if he wants to confess. "Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in guilt."

In another part of the Big Apple, the Pitts, a dysfunctional Mormon couple, are in the throes of a marital breakup. (She is addicted to prescription drugs, while he is law clerk and Reagan supporter fighting his own demons.) His mother Hannah (a brilliant Meryl Streep) soon moves in from Utah to confront and comfort her children. Other characters are based on real persons, including the closeted New York politico Roy Cohn. The nefarious Cohn is three-dimensional Shakespearian villain. Al Pacino is riveting as the dying Cohn surrounded by photographs of himself and his latest lover in the company of the Reagans. When Cohn learns he has AIDS, he "spins" his death sentence into a bout of "liver cancer." He lectures his doctor: "AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys."

Angels in America
Dir. Mike Nichols; writ. Tony Kushner; feat. Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson. (TV rating MA)

Angels In America, Part I
Sunday, December 7

Angels In America, Part II
Sunday, December 14
Cohn's constant outbursts of abuse and racial slurs initially alarm his hospital attendant, Belize, a gay African American. But Belize also harbors his own bitterness. "I live in America, that's hard enough. I don't have to love it. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it."

When an angel appears to Prior in all its FX glory - "Greetings, Prophet. The Millennium approaches. The work must begin." - he can only react with awe: "Wow! Very Stephen Spielberg!" Across town, Cohn is also having a vision - albeit with the ghost of accused spy Ethel Rosenberg whom the red-baiting Cohn was instrumental in having executed. Her message echoes the angel's: "History is about to crack wide open, Roy. Millennium approaches."

The second part, "Perestroika," to premiere the following week, addresses the great expectations from "Millennium." As filtered through Prior's imagination, Angels is also a tribute to gay theater history. Kushner's work is subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," which implies that we will see the strings that create theater magic. Humorous references to The Wizard of Oz, Jean Cocteau, Tennessee Williams, and others abound. When Prior says to Hannah, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," she flatly retorts "Well, that's a stupid thing to do."

Al Pacino plays closted New York politico Roy Cohn in Angels (courtesy photo)

Be ready for the discussion - the debate - and the controversy this classic American play will engender. The AIDS crisis is now a worldwide pandemic. Recently released figures announced the terrible toll the disease continues to exact on the population. Yet, for gays among the first victims of AIDS, their struggle for full citizenship continues in the recent strides made by repeal of the sodomy laws in Texas and the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.

Kushner's play eschews sentiment and political rant and instead is a meditation of modern life in these United States during an era when a terrible pox befell humanity.

This is television drama of the highest order.

Mike Nichols' direction is as fresh as it is exact. He and Emma Thompson previously collaborated in the HBO Emmy-winning adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit. Expect Nichols' Angels to become the most-honored television show in Emmy history.

HBO's decision to air Angels during the traditional year-end holidays is an important statement. What emerges is not unlike Charles Dickens secular Christmas Carol, with its nocturnal ghosts and disturbing visions of the bitterness, greed, and social disorder of another time, another place. At the end of that story, the crippled Tiny Tim gives voice to the resilience of the human spirit by wishing God's blessing on us all. Ditto Angels. •

Citizen Kushner: To Protest & Serve

Tony Kushner

For theatergoers who have yet to see Tony Kushner's works staged in San Antonio, the HBO broadcast will provide an excellent opportunity for them - along with the estimated 30 million viewers who will see Angels.

Angels will make Kushner a household word. Not bad for a playwright who not only tells it like it is on stage with verve and intelligence, but who is as outspoken and passionate off-stage. As a self-described believer in secular democracy, and a gay, married playwright, Kushner's time has come. For those wanting to find other plays and books by the eclectic Kushner, the following list provides a few suggestions.

Going to New York City during the holidays? Kushner's latest work, Caroline, or Change, opened off-Broadway on Sunday. The play features Caroline, a black maid to a Jewish family in 1960 Louisiana, focusing on her influence on the family's young son (a semi-fictional Kushner), and includes a trio of singing household appliances. Caroline runs at the Public Theater through January (

Two new books with text by Kushner and illustrations by Maurice Sendak are in stores. The Art of Maurice Sendak (Abrams, $60) is Kushner's valentine to the master illustrator Sendak. Brundibar (Hyperion Press, $19.95) is geared for youngsters. It is a retelling in words of a Czech opera (adapted by Kushner) that was performed during World War II by children at the Terezin concentration camp.

In a more polemic vein, Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul!: Rants, Screeds and Other Public Utterances for Midnight in the Republic (New Press, $18.95) is a collection of his essays. In one, he tells students: "What to say to you vibrant young people leaving college and entering the great world just in time to be trampled flat by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? 'Duck!' might be a good place to start."

Kushner is also co-editor (with Alisa Soloman) of Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Grove Press, $12.95). Jewish characters, history, and culture inform Kushner's work, but he is very tough on Ariel Sharon's government.

His most prescient and timely play, Homebody/Kabul, is set in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The three-hour drama (which was in rehearsals shortly before 9-11) explores the U.S.'s support of the Taliban by way of Pakistan. It centers on the disappearance of a female British tourist. If you can't wait for the HBO production to air in late 2004, then read the Homebody script (Theater Communications Group, $12.95).

Kushner's newest play, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, debuts this spring. Activists got a glimpse of Unhappy in The Nation magazine last March. Kushner waived the performance rights fees for "anyone wanting to use it at antiwar events." Its unlikely central character is Laura Welch Bush, who makes a photo-op stop to read a story to school kids. Her audience turns out to be a classroom of dead Iraqi children presided by an Angel/teacher. The first lady treats them to a reading from her favorite book, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov - but not before she wrestles with her blind acceptance of "Bushie's" (or so she calls him) foreign policy. Easy target practice? In Kushner's talented hands, it is nothing less than tragic and haunting. Hopefully, the play will find its way into the national campaign - and San Antonio stages. •
Gregg Barrios

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