Angels in America by Tony Kushner

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

Angels in America followed a rapid, if circuitous, route to success. The first part of Kushner's epic work, Millennium Approaches, was originally commissioned and planned for San Francisco's Eureka Theater in 1989. The play actually premiered in a workshop production in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 1990, then landed briefly at the Eureka Theater in 1991 before getting its first major production at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1992. Later that year, Perestroika was added, and the full production was performed for the first time back in Los Angeles. By the time the play reached Broadway in 1993, it had already garnered numerous awards and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the adoring praise of critics around the world. As expected, it won the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play in 1993.

Sometimes success draws detractors, and many a critic has made his reputation by savagely criticizing what all his colleagues seem to adore. Angels in America, however, seemed to carry a special blessing—in spite of what were seen as a few minor flaws, most reviewers agreed that its greatness couldn't be denied. Shortly after the Broadway opening in 1993, and long after the play had already been praised and canonized by writers everywhere it had appeared, Jeremy Gerard wrote in Variety, "Believe the hype: This smartly ambitious, unabashedly sprawling, glintingly provocative, frequently hilarious and urgently poignant play is as revelatory as the title suggests, both in its kaleidoscopic account of life in the Reagan '80s and its confirmation of a young writer's dazzling, generous vision."

Reviewers found a lot to like in Angels. Hal Gelb, writing for the Nation, suggested, "Tony Kushner has written an enormously entertaining play while at the same time treating important matters seriously." Gelb also praised the balance Kushner found in his political stance, noting, "Unlike many playwrights on the left, Kushner does a good job of allowing the characters on the right their humanity." In the New Republic, Robert Brustein, a critic and scholar known for his rigorous standards and candor, admitted, "Kushner is that rare American thing, an artist-intellectual, not only witty himself but the gauge by which we judge the witlessness of others. His very literate play once again makes American drama readable literature."

For many commentators, Kushner's characters, and the opportunity they provide performers, were the most appealing aspect of the play. In the New York Post, veteran critic Clive Barnes observed, "Kushner peoples his phantasmagoria with great, sharply realistic characters—the savagely comic Roy Cohn, played with expectorating, explosive bile by Ron Liebman, Steven Spinella' s whimsically wicked, spindly, longdying prophet and Jeffrey Wright's raw and motherly nurse, are luminously wonderful." Audiences and critics alike are often drawn to villains. A good villain, like Shakespeare's Richard III, is articulate, charismatic, and wickedly appealing. Accordingly, much praise was lavished on Kushner's depiction of Roy Cohn, the historical epitome of rightwing conservatism in the 1950s and hypocrisy in the 1980s. In the New Yorker, John Lahr asserted, "As written, Cohn is one of the great evil characters of modern American drama. In him Kushner personifies the barbarity of individualism during the Reagan years, and also the deep strain of pessimism that goes with the territory."

Other reviewers appreciated the remarkable humor the play contains, in spite of its deadly serious subject matter. "The big surprise is how funny it is," wrote David Patrick Stearns in USA Today, "Hysteria and humor flip back and forth in Marcia Gay Harden's portrayal of the mousy, Valium-addicted Mormon housewife who hallucinates herself into a vacation to Antarctica." Referring to Perestroika in New York magazine, John Simon said, "Kushner is a funny fellow, and there is both nicely elaborated humor and rapidfire wit throughout much of...

(The entire section is 1,014 words.)