For both conservatives and liberals during the 1980s, the explosion of the HIV/AIDS crisis felt like the result of the flower power generation’s Dionysian rebellion, the seemingly debauched liberalism of the 1960s and ’70s that Joan Didion wrote so aptly about in her 1967 essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem. A plague arrived that was afflicting members of every social class, vulnerable and powerful alike. From drug addicts to bond traders, loved ones were swiftly dropping dead, and the scariest part was that there was no cure in sight.
The backdrop for this epidemic was, of course, the administration of Ronald Reagan. The champion of supply-side economics, warrior-in-chief against public sector labor, devout Christian, defender of family values and Republican Jesus was callously silent as the epidemic spread. By the beginning of 1987, over 500,000 people had died of AIDS worldwide.
Now revived on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, Tony Kushner’s powerful magnum opus, Angels in America, details the roots and the consequences of the American hypocrisy that Reagan exemplified.
In the play’s second half, Belize, an African-American nurse played by an effective Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, explains his contempt for the country.
It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean.
Belize’s patient is none other than Roy Cohn, (Nathan Lane), the bumptious McCarthyte attorney and early Donald Trump mentor who died from complications with AIDS in 1986 and, until the day he died, insisted it was liver cancer. When Jeff Sessions recently chose to recuse himself from the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with the Kremlin, Trump reportedly asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
The play reveals the societally shared consciousness of people living under a common political cloud.
It was Cohn’s lack of moral scruples that led him to be one of the most powerful lawyers in right-wing America, then eventually to his disbarment in 1986, months before he died of the very disease that was thought by many of his fellow conservatives to be the result of immoral behavior. It is almost Shakespearean, dying at the hands of the very poison killing your enemies. But when adherents of every ideology fall dead to the same malady, it means that everyone drinks the same water. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Democratic, closeted gay mayor of New York at the time of the AIDS outbreak, Ed Koch, refused to address the epidemic until 1983, three years after he was made aware of it, and routinely labeled the upstart AIDS activist group Act Up! as “fascists.”
In Angels, there are scenes when characters, removed by three or four degrees of separation, despairingly meet each other in dreams, despite not yet having met in person. When Prior Walter, the play’s AIDS-stricken protagonist (Andrew Garfield), meets Harper, a woman isolated by agoraphobia (brought on by her Mormon husband’s homosexual repression), the two convene over their suffering, social malaise and societal neglect. Both Prior and Harper are forced to exist in equally oppressive worlds. The coalescence of their suffering brings them together even though they have never met.
Thus, Angel’s often uncited subtitle: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The play reveals the societally shared consciousness of people living under a common political cloud.
The strongest aspect of the new production is the directing prowess of Marianne Elliott. A two-night, seven-hour play is difficult to stage, but through shape-shifting scenery and meticulously thought out stage direction, Elliott has succeeded in drawing out impressive work from all her actors without losing the integrity of the show’s fantastical, dreamlike elements.
The role of the angel is backed by a team of six actors alone, credited in the production as ‘shadows,’ who support the apparition’s sprawling and decrepit iron wings.
In a time when many theatergoers are especially critical of the current presidential administration, Elliott has the crowd on her side so that all of Kushner’s cleverly crafted witticisms fall perfectly into place. Andrew Garfield presents a powerful marathon performance, describing it as “hopefully the hardest thing” he’ll “ever do,” and Nathan Lane is a tour de force as Cohn, hitting each note with professional acuity that only a stage veteran could produce.
It is somewhat strange that a work such as this thrives most under dark political circumstances, but that is exactly why plays like Angels in America exist, to ignite the imagination when it is needed most and to inspire hope when political change is necessary.
As Tony Kushner detailed in his notes for staging Angels, “The world of the play, like the world outside the theater, is a tough place.” This is especially true in a country driven by a dream, the fabled American Dream, and which has never been able to reconcile the people and places it has left behind pursuing it.
The epidemic is subsiding, at least among much of the developed world, in large part thanks to activists who forced those in power to face the reality of the disease and to put money and resources towards prevention and remedies. To say this is not to downplay the hard work needed ahead to eradicate HIV/AIDS but simply to acknowledge how far we have come. Yet as the daily stream of news stemming from the White House reminds us, American hypocrisy is alive and well — a tragedy repeating itself yet again, this time as farce.
Photo: Nathan Lane, left, as Roy Cohn and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in Angels in America. Credit: Helen Maybanks.