By Pat Launer
I was down for the count, not much I could do;
I was stranded in bed, laid up with the flu
One particular play I was dying to see:
Would I go to it or could it come to me?
No less than a $60 million show:
“Angels in America” on HBO.
The problem had a simple label:
We don’t get any Premium cable.
Friends invited us over; that seemed ducky
But I was really feeling yucky
I was dying to see it in its premiere Sunday
It was too late to get HBO – they need at least one-day
So what did we do? I’ll leave you in doubt
Read on, dear friend, and you’ll find out….
Okay, you probably won’t believe the lengths I would go to for a theater production. Especially for a Tony Kushner play. And especially for “Angels” Part I, which I adore. Not to mention the all-star cast. Sooooo……. I bundled up and we toddled off to … a hotel room, which we used for 3 hours to watch the show on Sunday night. Nuts? Maybe. But I was so glad we did it. Sure, I could’ve waited for someone to tape it for me. But I really wanted to see Meryl Streep and Al Pacino and Emma Thompson in their national “Angels” debut. And so I did. And it was worth the price of admission.
In the local Sunday paper, the TV section described the movie as “two AIDS patients react to their illness.” That’s kinda like saying the Civil War was about blue and gray. This play (screenplay also written by Kushner) is so expansive, about so many things, that it boggles the mind. It’s about Jews and gentiles and Mormons. Homophobia and homosexuality. Love and faith. Trust and loyalty. The politics state of America. And perhaps most of all, it’s about stasis and change.
It was written in 1990 and set in 1985. and though some progress has been made since then, many issues are as timely and topical as ever. Roy Cohn, the villainous Red-hating protégé of Joseph McCarthy, is no longer alive, but there are hordes who’ve come and gone to take his place. Other people for whom political “clout” is more important than legality or morality. To these devils the only important thing is what you want and who you know that can make it happen. Not a very dated concept at all in these post-Enron, military-industrial days.
Sure, gays have obtained more rights and respectability. But last week, I wrote about “Another American: Asking and Telling,” which concerned the military’s ‘Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell’ policy. People are still getting bashed, battered and killed over their sexual preferences. And people are still dying of AIDS, worldwide, by the millions. There’s a different Bush in the White House now. And Kushner was even prescient about that. In one scene, Roy Cohn and a cohort talk about how the Republicans will take over after the millennium. [Remember that Kushner also wrote “Homebody/Kabul” a year before 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan].
So a decade after its spectacular debut, winning every award imaginable, from the Tony to the Olivier to the Pulitzer, “Angels” has arrived on the doorstep of the masses (those who have Premium cable, anyway). It’s a momentous event. For the uninitiated, it will be a big surprise (if they tune in at all, given superficial, off-putting descriptions like the one in the newspaper to guide them). Unlike many TV shows, it requires attention, concentration and thinking. It just happens to be one of the most vitally important theatrical creations of our age. And this film, which will doubtless be available for rental some time in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, will not be soon forgotten either.
The performances are literally breathtaking. The direction (Mike Nichols) is superb, simultaneously opening up the piece to encompass all of America and keeping it in a claustrophobic New York. It veers back and forth between huge scale and retained intimacy. Painterly scenes, beautifully lit. Private moments spied on. Individual fears and terrors revealed. The scope is grand, but the close-up brings us way inside. It’s gorgeous and magnificent.
I have to confess, I prefer the fantastical magic of the stage, with live people having these intense interactions and making these amazing transformations. With all the time in the world and all the techno-wizardry of Hollywood, it’s easy to make an angel fall through the ceiling, or turn Meryl Streep into an aged, bearded Orthodox rabbi and Emma Thompson into a toothless street person. But the conversions are pretty dramatic nonetheless (and both women become totally unrecognizable). Streep also plays the no-nonsense Mormon mother of the sexually confused Joe (anguished Patrick Wilson, seen locally – in all his glory — at the Globe in “The Full Monty” and at the La Jolla Playhouse in “Sweet Bird of Youth”).
Mary Louis Parker is stellar as Joe’s unhappy, Valium-popping, hallucinatory wife Harper, who often has the clearest insights of all. She and Prior Walter, that is (adorable Justin Kirk) — the witty, urbane man who finds out he has AIDS and who gets visitations from family ghosts and a messenger Angel (Emma Thompson, who looks lovely in white, with huge wings, suspended in air).
Jeffrey Wright is terrific as the drag-queen/nurse Belize, the most honest, constant and loyal person in the play. Wright, who played the role in the original New York production a decade ago, is also amusing as the bemused Mr. Lies, who appears repeatedly to Harper and escorts her on a hallucinatory trip to Antarctica. Ben Shenkman seems a bit less witty and neurotic than he should be, but the intellectual intensity of his Louis is spot-on. Louis is Prior’s lover, the one who can’t handle the illness and leaves his boyfriend just after the AIDS diagnosis.
This is a spectacular ensemble, and hovering like a black cloud over all is Al Pacino as Roy Cohn. I’ve seen the role played wayyy over the top. Pacino uses extreme restraint, and the portrayal is the more potent for it. His Roy is unquestionably a fiend, but in a very straightforward, sensible way, he lets us see the warped logic of his thinking; it’s bone-chilling. Cohn, of course, was a homophobic homosexual and an anti-Semitic Jew. His speeches with and about Ethel Rosenberg (Streep again, wonderful) are shocking. And it is Ethel who tells us “History is about to crack wide open.” How right she was. And how wrong you’d be not to catch “Angels,” Part I (repeating now in shorter segments on HBO) and Part II, this Sunday, 8-11pm. Wherever and however I am, I’ll be there.
…It was a bittersweet affair. The Performing Arts League celebrated its 20th anniversary, introduced its new board, and bade farewell to its incomparable executive director, Alan Ziter. In a Westgate ballroom Monday night, folks lined up to honor, praise and applaud Alan and wish him well on his 18 years of extraordinary accomplishments for the League and all the arts in San Diego. He received a Mayor’s proclamation, and good wishes from County Supervisor Pam Slater, Rep. Chris Kehoe and Congressman Bob Filner. ALL of them (county, city, Imperial County, etc.) separately declared December 8 Alan Ziter Day. Alan, ever-rapid on his feet, quipped about it. But he was also moved, touched and brought to tears. Golden-voiced Bill Purves, who ‘discovered’ Alan at the Hot Tix booth in Chicago a dozen years ago, spoke warmly and articulately. Moonlight’s Kathy Brombacher talked on behalf of the 144 members. Toni Robin (League marketing director) presented a memory book from all current and former staffers. Alan is moving on, but fortunately for the arts of San Diego, he’s not going far. He’s about to take up the reins as President and CEO of the NTC Foundation, where he’ll oversee the development of a new arts, civic and cultural district for San Diego. Look for big things coming to the 26-building NTC site (Alan says the initials should be retained, but they should stand for ‘Now That’s Culture!’).
Years ago, I served on the board of Creative Response (San Diego’s answer to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS). Alan was the executive director at the time. He was an incredible administrator. Nobody gets the job done more efficiently, effectively, creatively, with more vision, good will and good humor, than Alan Ziter.
I want to take this public opportunity to say Good Luck, Alan. You’ve made an indelible mark on the arts community; your shoes will be very hard to fill. But we know you’ll take on this new challenge with the same skill, energy, drive and enthusiasm you bring to everything – and you’ll undoubtedly experience the same success.
This is the last weekend to catch the gut-wrenching Renaissance Theatre production of “A View from the Bridge” – at Cygnet Theatre. Miss it at your own risk…
….And don’t forget Giftix for stocking stuffers… Or, as the Performing Arts League puts it, “Wrap up a show this holiday.” These little ho-ho-humdingers come in increments of $10 and they’re accepted at more than 60 San Diego theaters. Now that’s a dramatic seasonal gift! Go to www.sandiegoperforms.com and get ’em while they’re hot.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“A View from the Bridge” –spectacular ensemble work from Renaissance Theatre, in a play that never goes out of style; at Cygnet Theatre (near SDSU) through December 14
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — a walk down memory lane (as the book springs gorgeously to life) or an eye-popping treat for a little one. New and improved! Through Dec. 31 at the Old Globe.
“Story Theatre” — The Grimm Brothers were aptly named! And Aesop wasn’t far behind. Fairy tales come to life in inventive ways. Great ensemble, fun for the family. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through December 21.
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! And Jenn Grinels (recently so stellar in “Hedwig”) returns… without the beard! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
May the Angels be with you (on HBO),
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.