For the first time since its 1993 premiere, Angels in America has once again touched down on the Broadway stage. The new production from Britain’s National Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott, reinterprets Tony Kushner’s now-canonical play for an age in which many of its principal concerns remain deeply relevant. Although the script has only been slightly modified, the struggles that it details evoke unexpected resonances, now that Angels, which is about history, has become a part of history. The play’s ever-upward trajectory as a gay cultural touchstone and a mainstream success mirrors the dramatic political and social changes that have unfolded over the past two and a half decades.
Angels is technically two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and its skillfully arranged plotlines intersect and repeatedly double back on themselves over almost eight hours. (“This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother” is how one character gets introduced.) Set in New York City in the late 1980s, Kushner’s story follows the relationship between Prior, a man living with AIDS, and Louis, who abandons his lover in a time of need. Louis, a Jewish intellectual, finds an unlikely paramour in Joe, a closeted Republican Mormon lawyer who has recently arrived from Utah with his depressed wife, Harper. Like both Joe and Louis, Harper is also looking for an escape, swallowing pills “in wee fistfuls” to turn down the volume on her unhappy marriage. This quartet is joined by Prior’s friend Belize, a flamboyant black nurse with a preternatural gift for cutting repartee, and by Roy Cohn, the real-life unscrupulous lawyer and conservative consigliere who (in the play, as in historical fact) dies of AIDS-related complications. And then, of course, there are the angels that give the play its name.
For all of his loathsome qualities, Cohn is Kushner’s most compelling creation. Trailed by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, he is also the play’s principal device for connecting its characters’ often selfish pursuit of freedom to broader political themes. For Belize, who winds up as his hospital nurse, Cohn personifies the national character: “terminal, crazy, and mean.” A self-acknowledged “determined lowlife,” Cohn is not only a vicious bigot and amoral sleaze; he is also a man who wields tremendous power—indeed, he successfully pulls strings to amass a private hoard of AZT pills, which are off-limits to the general public. Cohn’s megalomania extends to nearly all aspects of his life: He is a Jew who hates Jews, a homosexual who despises homosexuals, and a person with AIDS who claims to be dying of “liver cancer.” These disavowals underscore the self-mutilation implicit in his hyper-individualistic ideology, and they suggest an undercurrent of self-loathing in America’s egoistic politics. If freedom amounts to the narrow pursuit of one’s own interest, there is little sense in recognizing commonalities or mutual obligations. Little does this concern Cohn, even as he wastes away on his deathbed, friendless and alone.
Using Cohn to explore the pathologies of the American right was not so difficult in 1993, seven years after his death. Ironically, it is even easier today, with one of Cohn’s main protégés occupying the White House. (As Marianne Elliott has stated, “Everything that Tony captured in Roy Cohn is now in the Oval Office.”) The new production reaps the dividends of Kushner’s accidental prescience, and Nathan Lane performs Cohn as distinctly Trumpian, playing up the overlap with lines like: “You think you know all I know. I don’t even know what all I know. Half the time I just make it up and it still turns out to be true!” Such topical humor wins knowing laughter from the audience, but its deployment also reveals how far Angels has traveled from its point of origin at the height of the AIDS crisis.