Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1995
It’s a galvanizing, apocalyptic theatrical event. The most acclaimed and exalted play of several decades. It defines our generation, our country, and the tail end of our century. Frank Rich, long-term critic of the New York Times, called it “the most thrilling American play of my adult lifetime.”
Hyperbole comes easily in talking about “Angels in America”, a Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, the only production in history to garner the Tony Award for Best Play two years in a row. It’s Big (two separate plays, six acts, innumerable themes) and Long (seven hours total), but also provocative, poetic, dramatic, funny and unforgettable. And thank goodness it’s coming to San Diego (October 3-15, Spreckels Theatre).
Set in 1980s New York, Tony Kushner’s brilliant two-part comedy/drama parallels the dissolution of two relationships: a straight and strait-laced Mormon couple and a pair of literate gay men, one of whom is dying of AIDS. Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” “Angels” isn’t just a gay play or an AIDS play. The individual parts are expansively named: “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” The scope is broad and deep, with themes that are at once personal and political, comic and tragic, naturalistic and mystical. The 29 characters (played by eight actors) are also diverse: black and white, gay and straight, Mormon and Jewish, liberal and conservative, rational and obsessed. At the center, emblematic of Reagan-era America, is the ruthless, soulless, monstrous power-monger Roy Cohn, amoral attorney and homosexual homophobe.
On the road in the national tour for over a year, Jonathan Hadary has played the role of Roy Cohn more than 400 times. He still can’t get over it. “It’s awesome,” says the 46 year-old veteran actor, who’s spent 27 years in show business. “It’s an overwhelmingly big thing. It has a power all its own. To serve this play and myself at the same time, and also to serve the public, is a pretty high high.
“I’ve had my share of wonderful roles,” says the affable actor. Indeed. On Broadway, he’s played Herbie in “Gypsy” opposite Tyne Daly); Saul in “As Is”, for which he won an Obie Award; Arnold in “Torch Song Trilogy”; Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls”. Off Broadway, he appeared in Sondheim’s “Assassins” and as Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s “The Destiny of Me”, for which Time named him ‘Performer of the Year’ in 1992.
“But this one’s so broad,” Hadary continues. “A very powerful role to play and live with a long time. He’s a fascinating, terrifying twist on the American dream. All he wants is power, and it doesn’t matter how he gets it or who he takes it from…. Before the play, I was only slightly familiar with Roy Cohn. I knew him as a famous New York sleazy lawyer. I knew of his connection to McCarthy and the Rosenbergs [in the play, Ethel Rosenberg, the accused spy whose electrocution Cohn facilitated, appears to haunt Cohn as he’s suffering, dying, from AIDS]. He’ll be more well-known from this play, especially after it’s made into a movie.” (Still in the planning stages, the film will likely be an all-star event, directed by Robert Altman, with screenplay by Kushner).
“It’s fascinating to play someone audiences hate before the curtain goes up. And he keeps being hateful, even after he dies, in ways you don’t expect…. The whole play is amazingly entertaining. It’s this incredible yarn, big and brash, beautifully written, very lively onstage. It has Heaven and Hell and death and sex, life, love, religion. And it’s funny. And the characters are all so smart. They’re as smart as Tony [Kushner] is. He’s remarkable. He has an incredible mind. He genuinely makes you think. He puts theories and emotions into human terms, in real lives.
“I love plays when there’s room in them for the point of view of an actor. There’s air and space in this play. For all the precision in writing — and there’s no fat or excess in the play — there’s all this room to be alive on a nightly basis. When I saw the play for the first time, I was completely swept up and couldn’t wait to see the second part. I loved spending the evening with these characters. I never responded to anything in precisely that way. I like these characters. I want to spend time with these people.
“Ultimately, the triumph of the play is that everyone relates to it on a personal basis. There’s a whole slew of doors, all kinds of ways into the play. It’s not exclusive. The play itself is inclusive. It’s Dickensian. That alone is so arresting. I think it will be a significant, lasting, timeless play. It’s uplifting, humbling and mysterious.
“How many things meet your expectations any more? And the expectations for this play are enormous. About twenty years ago, someone said that only Paris and Las Vegas — what else exceeds your expectations? “Angels in America” does.”
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.