Angels in America

by Tony Kushner

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Critical Overview

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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...

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herself into a vacation to Antarctica." Referring toPerestroika 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 three-and-a-half hour span."

Perhaps the most complimented aspect of Kushner's play was his ability to create a monumental work of art that deftly handles so many important ideas. In New York Newsday, Linda Winer wrote, "Kushner uses a huge canvas, but a very delicate brush. This is a play of big ideas—politics, religion, love, responsibility and the struggle between staying put and our need to move, preferably forward." It's a lot to take in, Winer suggested, "And, yet, this heretofore almost unknown playwright is such a delightful, luscious, funny writer that, for all the political rage and the scathing unsanitized horror, the hours zip by with the breezy enjoyment of a great page-turner or a popcorn movie."

Criticism has been leveled at Angels in America—though usually leavened by compliments for the play's literary ambition and stage production. Gelb's review in the Nation, for example, which was mainly glowing, still noted that, "despite Kushner's daring theatricality, endlessly fertile imagination and ambitious sense of form, Angels in America has its problems, some of them serious. The 'angels' plot itself, for one, isn't as fully imagined or its tone as clear as the earthbound narratives, and the angels' cause—anti-migration, cessation of relentless human movement—isn't compelling." Gelb also found parts of the play redundant, noting, "A still more obvious flaw is the way Kushner hits the same points over and over. For a good long stretch in the middle section, you feel he's taken the angels' enjoinder to heart: Nothing moveth."

Kushner's epic American drama also managed to raise moral objections in more conservative publications and on some college campuses. In the Christian Science Monitor, critic Ward Morehouse III wrote, "The play, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, has a power and boldness seldom seen on Broadway, but its homosexual themes may eliminate it from some theatergoers' agendas." Morehouse also warned his readers about the nudity and sexual situations in Angels in America, suggesting that director, George C. Wolfe, may have gone too far, including some scenes the critic felt were inserted solely for shock value. Objections turned into actions at the Catholic University of America, where campus administrators refused to allow advertisements to be posted for a planned production of the play in 1996. The administrators forced a student group to move to an offcampus location for the performance.


Critical Evaluation


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