A Sentimental Education

Playwright and political activist Tony Kushner provides insight into his intellectual development.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2011
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Illustrations by Gary KelleyThe date, the blind date, my mother’s latest attempt to address what she saw as the longstanding problem of my bachelorhood, had ended cordially, without dessert, and I found myself walking alone through the electrified chaos of Times Square, down to 42nd Street and west, past the bus station and toward the calm beyond 9th Avenue. Near the corner of 11th Avenue, I came upon the Signature Theatre, whose marquee read: Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

The play had been a hit on Broadway in the early 1990s, I recalled. I hadn’t seen it then, nor had I seen the 2003 film version that Mike Nichols directed for HBO. I knew only that it had something to do with AIDS, and if you had asked me who wrote it, I’d have probably said, “Larry Kramer, or no, Tony Kushner,” or vice versa, since the two names had melded together long ago in my Swiss-cheese consciousness to form a vague idea of a gay Jewish left-wing activist playwright with glasses. But the playbill outside the Signature clearly said Tony Kushner, and it was Kushner, I knew, who had gone to Columbia.

Curious, I stepped into the warmth of the box office, which was open because a show was in progress. The man at the ticket booth said that the Signature Theatre’s production of Angels was one of three Kushner works being featured in the company’s 2010–2011 all-Kushner season (the Signature focuses on one playwright per year), and that Kushner’s latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, would have its New York debut this spring at the Public Theater, in a coproduction with the Signature.

“I usually don’t buy tickets in advance, since you never know what will happen,” I said, “but maybe I’ll squeeze in a matinee this week.”

The man smiled. “Angels is nearly seven hours long,” he said, and seeing my alarm, he added, “It’s in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.” That didn’t help from a commitment standpoint. Yet seven hours did have a kind of thrilling defiance in it, a gothic grandeur, something formidable, even religious. Besides, it was called Angels in America, which didn’t sound boring, with those two capital A’s like spires on a gate through which I would pass. Then he told me that Millennium Approaches and Perestroika each won the Tony Award for Best Play (in 1993 and 1994, respectively), and that Millennium Approaches earned Kushner the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“Sold,” I said, eager to fill this hole in my awareness.

The following Wednesday, I arrived to a packed house and took my seat.

From its incantatory opening — a eulogy given by an Orthodox rabbi for an old immigrant woman he didn’t know — the Signature’s production, directed by Michael Greif, gave me a vision of the thunderbolt that had split the American stage 20 years before. In the fall of 1992, when Angels opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the New York Times theater critic Frank Rich articulated the wild excitement that had broken out in the theater world over the arrival of what appeared to be the Thing Itself: “Some visionary playwrights want to change the world. Some want to revolutionize the theater. Tony Kushner, the remarkably gifted 36-year-old author of Angels in America, is that rarity of rarities: a writer who has the promise to do both.” The following spring, the play, directed by George C. Wolfe, came to New York with so much hype on its wings that it could hardly be expected to fly so high.

On May 4, 1993, Angels made its Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theater. Frank Rich saw the play again and doubled down. “Angels in America speaks so powerfully,” he wrote, “because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake. It really is history that Mr. Kushner intends to crack open.”

Now, in the smaller, more intimate setting of the Signature, Angels spread itself out, revealing the relationships of two conflicted couples in New York, one gay (Louis and Prior), the other Mormon and married (Joe and Harper Pitt), whose lives intersect during the Reagan-fueled mid-1980s, when a culture of individual self-interest arose alongside a deadly epidemic that was attacking marginalized communities. Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS, prompting Louis to a morally perilous decision; the Pitts are ripped apart by Joe’s repressed homosexuality and dawning liberation; and a turbulent angel crashes through Prior’s hospital-room ceiling to deliver burning messages to the feverish, lesion-spotted man.

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