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What it’s like to watch Angels in America in an age of making America great again

Angels in America’s politics feels inevitable. But that isn’t the best thing about the new revival.

Angels in America.
Angels in America/Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Angels in America has been a sacred work to me.

It is one of the pinnacles of LGBTQ art. Tony Kushner, its craftsman and creator, is a genius. His words have won every award imaginable. And Angels in America is the best of his best. Performing it, I imagine, seems like an act of courage and carefulness, as if you’re holding someone else’s newborn child.

At the same time, the two-part play forms one of the few connections to the generation of gay men — artists, writers, geniuses, lawyers, accountants, lovers, brothers, fathers — who could have changed the world but were lost to AIDS. Now that we have the science and medicine that could have saved, prolonged, and changed those lives, there’s something cruelly frustrating about remembering a time when we did not.

The unavoidable reflex now, with the political parallels, is asking what Angels in America says, if anything, about America in 2018. Now that 27 years have faded since the play first debuted, the difference between where Kushner thought America would be and what actually happened in those decades is stark.

The new production of the play, which will run for 18 weeks at the Neil Simon Theater in New York, is a rapturous success, but not in the way I thought it would be. Instead of something holy and untouchable, this rendition of Angels feels more human.

I still found myself repeating Kushner’s magic combinations of words and the humbling vibrations they create — tropopause, great belt of calm air, ozone — over and over. But, I also found myself clinging to the messy, uglier moments of uncertainty and frustration that the play explores in a way I wasn’t equipped to wrestle with before.

Angels in America tells a brilliant story of loneliness

As you probably know and this new production makes clear, Angels in America is a behemoth.

Totaling almost eight hours (the play has four intermissions), split over two parts — Millennium Approaches and Perestroika over two nights, it’s a high concept “gay fantasia” about the AIDS epidemic gripping the US in the 1980s and the lack of urgency from the government to respond. It’s also about new and old religions. And the closet. And empathy and selfishness. And, occasionally, it touches on parenthood.

Mormon migration is explained. Someone has sex with men and women. Someone has sex with an angel. Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), who has come back into the public eye thanks to a recent Trump revelation, gets haunting visits from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman whose execution he helped along. No one has sex with Roy Cohn. But Roy Cohn does talk about the sex he is having.

For practical purposes, anyone who has seen the play in one of its many lives, either on stage or in its HBO adaptation, knows that at the brutal heart of it lies the tempestuous Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a young man whose world implodes with an HIV diagnosis. An angel asks him to tell humans to stop progressing, to stay put, to go back to the old ways, in hopes that God will come back. But we all know, and Kushner does too, that progress is the only way forward.

The angel’s message, coupled with the play’s sharp criticism of former president Ronald Reagan’s policies and politics, make it very easy to graft however you feel about Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again” onto Kushner’s work. Yet for as vocally political as Angels is and for as strident and inescapable as politics has become in America in 2018, the most timeless feature of director Marianne Elliott’s interpretation is how it handles Kushner’s howling sense of grief.

When I saw the play in 2010, I couldn’t uncoil its politics out of my head. By contrast, this production foregrounds that grief, though perhaps that’s more reflective of my current mentality that I’d rather escape the politics of 2018 than be reminded of them.

This time around, every character — Prior Walter; his terminally neurotic boyfriend Louis (James McArdle); the pill-addicted Harper (Denise Gough); her closeted, Reagan-loving husband Joe (Lee Pace); Roy Cohn; Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Prior and Cohn’s shared nurse and confidant; the Angel (Amanda Lawrence); and everyone else — made me realize how honest and brutal Kushner can be on the feeling of abandonment.

Elliott realizes that the humor in Kushner’s play is adjacent to loss. Each burst of comedy, like Prior talking to Louis about their cat Little Sheba, or Roy Cohn and Ethel cackling together, is followed by a sledgehammer, like Prior’s diagnosis or Roy’s impending and very painful death.

All the while, these characters exhibit the very human idea of explaining their misfortune, their abandonment, and their loneliness as their own fault. It must be something they did, something connected to their being. The domestic disputes between Prior and Louis and Harper and Joe are staged in such a way that the two very distinct fights are almost on top of one another, and so are the ensuing aftermaths.

It’s impossibly human to be determined to seek an explanation for sadness or loss, so much so that the act of pinpointing an explanation can consume our lives. Kushner felt this, but I didn’t fully realize it until Elliott and her brilliant cast opened my eyes.

Angels in America’s idea of inequality still rings true today

At the beginning of the year, in both an attempt to quash my hypochondriac-based fears about sex and affirm my attempt to be more responsible for my own health, I asked my doctor for a prescription for PrEP. PrEP stands for Pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill that, when taken regularly, can reduce the risk of HIV from sex by 90 percent. I probably would have asked for the pill earlier — the FDA approved it in 2012 — but my late adoption was due to my fear that there would be some unintended long-term consequences.

Without insurance, PrEP costs $2,110.99 per month. With insurance and a coupon card from Gilead, the pharmaceutical company that makes PrEP, the drug is as free as oxygen. And I couldn’t stop thinking about that big flashing “$0” in my head during Angels’ set changes and intermissions.

I cannot imagine what it is like for gay and bisexual men of a certain age, not much older than me, who saw their friends and lovers die of a disease and feared for their own lives. And now, in the very same lifetime, they are able to seismically reduce that risk — which brought so much ghoulish pain with it — for a free pill.

In some ways, Angels can feel like a history lesson in the way it handles its characters’ diagnoses. It alludes to the medical euphemism of “homosexual cancer” when talking about AIDS and depicts the episodes of helplessness that Prior feels without a cure. These moments let us look back and imagine what life was like not knowing what we now know about “homosexual cancer.”

In the play, Cohn gets a magic supply of AZT, a successful retroviral drug, because of his connections with the government. For Prior, who isn’t as well-connected, AIDS is a death sentence, until Belize and Louis smuggle him Cohn’s supply. And it’s in this unfair and brief flash of inequality — that the privilege to live can be bought — that the play resonated with me so powerfully.

I thought about my $0 pills and how much they would cost to someone without insurance. Then I thought about how America’s gay and bisexual black men have a higher HIV rate than any country in the world. And I thought about how many of those pills aren’t going to the places and people they could help most.

I still haven’t been able to shake that feeling of frustration and helplessness.

Angels provokes anger right out of your bones, and that anger charges it with urgency. It dares you to think about where we’ve failed. Even after all these years and all the advancements that have been made, Kushner’s greatest prediction is that America — happy endings and all — will always be an unforgiving work in progress.

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