Look Backward, Angels

Special Features   Look Backward, Angels
 
Tony Kushner's work on the seminal Angels in America is never done, he says. The two-part epic is now in revival Off-Broadway.

Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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"I don't think you can pretend to have a vision. There will be plays and books and movies further down the road that we'll look back on and say, 'This is my sense of what this was.' Looking back always gives you a great perspective, but when you're in the middle of it, all you can do is try and listen to those various forces that are passing through you and hope, in them, is a reflection of the truth."

That was Tony Kushner, between Tonys, at the tail end of our first interview 17 summers ago. At the time (1993), he was arriving on Broadway with a terrific, still-unprecedented one–two punch: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, which bowed in May and swept the shelf of '93 awards, and Angels in America: Perestroika, which followed suit in October and repeated the feat in 1994.

Between his back-to-back Best Play wins, the 36-year-old playwright was not only dizzy from his newfound fame but also rewriting like hell to maintain the giddy altitude. "I look back on it now, and I think I was probably, to a certain extent, numb about how big a deal it was," he says. "I don't think I would have been able to handle it if I had really known. It was exciting, but I kept it at a distance. I didn't entirely know why this was happening, and I didn't entirely trust that it would go on. I feel like I handled it reasonably well and got through it. I doubt if I will ever be at the center of a scene like that again. I don't know if that really happens more than once."

Now, as then, he is rewriting Perestroika, which is currently spinning in rep with Millennium Approaches into February 2011 at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre. "I've never done any rewrites on Millennium. Basically, it's the same script [director] David Esbjornson used for the first professional production at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre in 1990. Perestroika I rewrite every chance I get. I did a rewrite when it came to Broadway, and published that. Then I worked on it during the national tour and published that. Now, for Off-Broadway, I worked on it again, and there'll be a new edition — not radically different, but there're alterations. To revisit it at this point is a great thrill.

"There are just some plays where you can always say, 'What if I try this?' and 'What if I try that?' and you just can't do anything because they're completely done. I feel that the Millennium part of Angels is completely done. Caroline, or Change is completely done. But there are some plays you have to keep at it."

Christian Borle in Part One, Millennium Approaches
photo by Joan Marcus

This is understandable, given the sprawling canvas on which Kushner operates. Both plays bear the subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, which is what comes from tossing spicy, spiky social and political issues of the AIDS-stricken '80s into a theatrical Waring blender. The focus of the plays is on the coupling and uncoupling of two doomed pairs — one gay (Jewish vs. WASP) and the other half-straight (a male bisexual vs. his bitter, Lithium-lulled wife) — plus some upstaging historical cameos by Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg thrown in to thicken the mix.

"I'm not much of a miniaturist, and I wouldn't say my strong suit is compression," Kushner understates. "My impulse is always towards a kind of long form. What's great about this Signature revival is its intimate stage. The play is epic, and it's long, and it covers a lot of terrain — but it's really a succession of very intimate scenes."

An early-AIDS play that prompted Kushner's epic vision was Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. (It, fittingly, took over Angels' old Broadway roost, the Walter Kerr, for an all-star benefit reading on Oct. 18.) "What is remarkable is Larry wrote it in the actual white-hot center of the crisis. When I started Angels, it was the end of the '80s, when the epidemic was still ongoing — as it still is today — but it feels to me like a play that's looking back. It's not looking back ten years, but it's looking back a very eventful three or four years. By the time I'd finished it in the early '90s, the landscape of the epidemic had changed considerably. That gave me perspective. Larry benefited enormously from taking everything in. I don't know how he did it. I couldn't have. Anybody could — but not write a great play. Angels is just a different creature, and the distance, I think, was useful."

Currently, Kushner is concentrating his rewriting on his first gay play since Angels, something called (speaking of long form) The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. Its world premiere last year at the Guthrie was delayed till he got his rewrites in, so to keep pressure at bay, no one's saying when it'll surface this season at the Public.

But he's weary of dancing on the lip of the volcano at deadline time. "I've come to the conclusion there's a price one pays for that — for waiting for the adrenaline rush — and I've come to value having time to work and rework material a lot. I'm trying to change that pattern in myself. It's not easy, but I think I've made some progress."

Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck in Part Two, <i>Perestroika</i>
Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck in Part Two, Perestroika
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