STAGE TO SCREENS: HBO's "Angels in America" Plus a Chat with "Angels" Co-star Ben Shenkman

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: HBO's "Angels in America" Plus a Chat with "Angels" Co-star Ben Shenkman This month we check out HBO's "Angels in America," which Tony Kushner has adapted from his 1993 and '94 Tony-winning Best Plays: Millennium Approaches (which also received the Pulitzer Prize) and Perestroika.
Ben Shenkman in a scene from HBO's Angels in America
Ben Shenkman in a scene from HBO's Angels in America Photo by Stephen Goldblatt/HBO

Part 1, "Millennium..." debuts Sunday, December 7, 8-11 PM ET, and consists of Chapters 1-3: "Bad News," "In Vitro" and "The Messenger." Part 2, "Perestroika," follows on Sunday, December 14, 8-11:05 PM ET; it's comprised of Chapters 4-6: "Stop Moving!" "Beyond Nelly," and "Heaven, I'm in Heaven." (A schedule of showings follows the column.) We also chat with Ben Shenkman about the cable presentation.

Part 1 stars Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn), Meryl Streep (the Rabbi, Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg), Emma Thompson (Nurse Emily, Homeless Woman, the Angel), Mary-Louise Parker (Harper Pitt), Jeffrey Wright (reprising his 1994 Tony-winning roles of Mr. Lies and Belize), Justin Kirk (Prior Walter, Leatherman in Park), Ben Shenkman (Louis Ironson), Patrick Wilson (Joe Pitt), Brian Markinson (Martin Heller), and James Cromwell (Roy's Doctor). Part 2 begins with the same credits, except that Robin Weigert (Mormon Mother) is billed instead of Brian Markinson. Featured (unbilled) performances are given by Michael Gambon (Prior 1) and Simon Callow (Prior 2).

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They might as well start polishing the Emmys now, and, to save time, begin engraving them with "Angels in America." A strong, solid, splendid achievement, it's spectacularly acted, and superbly directed by Mike Nichols.

Fade in: The funeral service of the grandmother of Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), who attends with his lover, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk). It surprised me that the officiating Rabbi is played by a bearded Meryl Streep. However, when I played the tape for my wife and asked her to guess who plays the Rabbi, a character who's heard before (s)he's seen, my wife immediately said, "That's Meryl Streep's voice." We next meet the bombastic Roy Cohn (a silver-haired Al Pacino), who plays telephone roulette while chatting with idealistic Joe Pitt (a dark-haired Patrick Wilson). "I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus...," says Cohn, so that he could push even more buttons on his console telephone. As extremely good as everyone is, it's Pacino that I couldn't wait to see again between scenes. Spewing vitriol and wearing evil like a badge of honor, he's simply fascinating. A marvelous Streep especially shines in Part 2. Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker are both fine, and four young actors give performances that you're not likely to see soon again in one feature: Jeffrey Wright (the only Broadway cast member, proving why he won his Tony), Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and Patrick Wilson.

Frank Rich, in the "Times," as well as others I know who have seen the movie, have referred to Wilson as giving "a career-making performance"; while I agree, I believe the same could/should be said of Wright, Kirk and Shenkman.

In his November 16 Arts & Leisure piece, Rich writes: "'Angels' is the most powerful screen adaptation of a major American play since Elia Kazan's 'Streetcar Named Desire' more than a half-century ago." He adds, "Mr. Kushner's writing has gained in pathos with age. What he has to say about coping with unfathomable loss and the terror inflicted by covert, death-dealing cells at the end of the last millennium speaks to us more urgently than ever in the new one ushered in by 9/11."

Part 1 continues with Prior telling Louis about his first lesion, the start of his harrowing experiences battling AIDS. We see Joe Pitt arriving home to tell his emotionally disturbed wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), of Cohn's offer for him to work in Washington, D.C. She thinks that their Brooklyn apartment is similar to the one in "Rosemary's Baby," but doesn't want to move to the capital, since Georgetown was the scene of "The Exorcist." Chapter 1 ends with Cohn's doctor (James Cromwell) giving his patient some "very bad news."

The second chapter begins with Louis trying to assist a very ill Prior. There are two beautifully played scenes involving Pacino and Wilson, who have in common that they're Republicans, lawyers, and gay, but—for different reasons—hide the last fact. One scene occurs in a posh bar with Cohn and Joe having a drink, while Cohn pats and caresses Joe's shoulders and arms, as if he were a masseur applying body oil; the other takes place in a four-star restaurant (with Brian Markinson), as Cohn explains some facts of political life to a stunned Joe. Two other brilliantly intercut sequences show Louis in Prior's hospital room, informing his partner that he's leaving, and Joe admitting the truth to Harper.

Chapter 3 begins with Louis delivering a virtual monologue in a diner. Cohn tells Joe how he was responsible for having the Rosenbergs executed, right before Ethel Rosenberg (Streep) appears to Cohn to observe the bastard's misery. Joe approaches Louis in Central Park at night, and touches his face. "I'm going to hell for doing this," says Joe, to which Louis replies, "Big deal! You think it'd be any worse than New York City?" Emma Thompson has quite an entrance as the Angel: "The messenger has arrived!"

Naturally, the special effects in the movie outweigh what's possible on the stage; and fantasy scenes—such as Harper following Mr. Lies into her refrigerator and ending up in Antarctica—are more easily achieved on the screen. The fantasy sequences mix nicely with the themes of religion, politics, and sex that comprise "Angels in America."

Louis returns to his apartment with Joe as Chapter 4 begins Part 2. Cohn's doctor admits him to the hospital, where Belize is a nurse. Although Belize despises Cohn, he educates the lion about life in his latest lair. Cohn's not despondent because of pain; he's upset that his hospital room telephone doesn't have a "hold" button. On the phone, demanding that he have his own supply of AZT (a drug unavailable to most), Cohn dismisses the listener's mention of the late hour. "I couldn't sleep," he barks. "I'm too busy dying!"

A scene at the Mormon Visitors' Center in Manhattan, with Streep as Hannah Pitt and Parker as her daughter-in-law, begins Chapter 5. We next see Lou and Joe walking on a beach; and later, Lou meeting Prior at Washington Square Park. There's a good scene in the hospital between Pacino, whose Cohn is high on morphine, and Jeffrey Wright as the savvy Belize.

Prior, accompanied by Streep, is in the hospital as Chapter 6 begins. "This is my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother," Prior tells the nurse (Thompson). "Even in New York, in the Eighties, that is strange," declares Thompson. As Joe's mother, Streep is tremendously compassionate, and is quick with a response. As she leaves Prior's hospital room, he says, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Observes Streep, "Well, that's a stupid thing to do." Parker perfectly delivers her final monologue, spoken aboard an airplane. The final scene occurs at Central Park's Bethesda Fountain, as four friends gather in January 1990. No doubt, "Angels in America" will have a wide appeal.

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In "Angels," Ben Shenkman appears in the opening and closing scenes—and quite a few in-between. He's the only one seen with Meryl Streep in her three roles, and gets to act with just about everyone in the cast. "Ironically, not [with] Mary-Louise," he says, speaking of Parker, whom he played opposite in Broadway's Proof.

How did Shenkman get to play Louis Ironson? "Several people I knew who had access to advance word said, 'HBO is doing ["Angels"], Nichols is directing; Pacino, Streep and Emma Thompson are attached.' I said, 'That's great, but it'll probably be an all-star cast.'

"They said, 'No. In fact, Mike is very interested in casting people who are not so well known, especially for the young men.' When I heard that, I started to get nervous. I realized I had a history with the play, I knew Tony [Kushner], and I was exactly right for the part."

Shenkman's history with "Angels" dates back to NYU, in the Grad acting program, where he did a workshop production of Perestroika. He recalls, "It was about the same time that Part 1 was opening on Broadway. People who didn't want to wait to see Perestroika on Broadway were coming down to see our show, [in which Shenkman played Roy Cohn]. It was great to finish school with this big, ambitious reach—and people really responded to it. A couple of years later, I played Louis in both parts, for the better part of a year, at ACT in San Francisco.

"I knew Mike [Nichols] had seen Proof, and liked it, and I'd probably get to audition. I had two auditions: "I did the diner scene, and a scene in the hospital with the nurse, when Prior's first admitted.

"During that period, I was more afraid of getting the part than of losing it. The level on which it was going to be done felt really monumental. Being responsible for Louis in that kind of a production was pretty daunting—and, of course, exciting, too." Born in New York, Shenkman grew up in Washington, D.C. He acted a lot in school, and "just kept going through the doors that were opening." At the moment, he has no new project. "I'm trying to find something that I would love to do."

Shooting, says Shenkman, "started April 1, 2002, and ran till January 2003. They did all Pacino's scenes at once, because they only had him for a certain time." While he admires the movie's special effects, Shenkman notes, "One of the things people loved about seeing it on the stage was that an advantage was made out of having to do fantastical scenes. The audience would see how an illusion was accomplished. There's that great line in the stage production, where the Angel comes through the ceiling and Prior says, 'Wow—very Steven Spielberg.'"

He laughs when I ask if there was a particular scene that was more difficult than the others. "Not really; they were all difficult. When I'd look at the script beforehand, I'd go, 'Okay, just don't even think about it.' Almost any of the scenes in 'Angels in America' would be among the most challenging scenes if you were to do ten different movies.

"Each scene felt like a little more than maybe I could handle—so, okay, just jump in. Working on the plays had also felt like that. It feels like more than you can accomplish, and yet isn't. It feels like more than the audience can handle, and isn't. It seems more demanding than is possible, and ultimately winds up more rewarding than you think possible."

Does Shenkman feel his character is someone who thinks only of himself? "I think he moves from being a more selfish person to a less selfish person over the course of the story. When people are afraid, that's what happens; they can't get beyond their own experience. He realizes how far short of decency he's falling, but he's trapped in a crisis. He has an inability to get behind his own terror. He's at a moment in his life when he's at his worst."

How does one follow a project like "Angels in America"? Responds Ben Shenkman, "I think the answer is you don't. You simply accept it as a really special experience, and take whatever you've learned from it, and whatever opportunities it may bring." Bravo, Mister S, for a job well done!

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Nominated for nine Tony Awards, Millennium Approaches won four: Play, Director (George C. Wolfe), Actor Ron Leibman (as Roy Cohn) and Featured Actor Stephen Spinella (Prior Walter). Perestroika received six nominations, winning three: Play, Actor Stephen Spinella, and Featured Actor Jeffrey Wright.

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"Angels in America" Schedule: "Millennium Approaches" (Chapters 1-3): Chapter 1: December 8, 8 PM ET; December 11, 10 PM ET; December 22, 11 PM ET. Chapter 2: December 9, 8 PM ET; December 12, 10 PM ET; December 22, 12:10 AM ET. Chapter 3: December 10, 8 PM ET; December 13, 10 PM ET; December 23, 11 PM ET. HBO2 airdates: Chapters 1-3: December 8, 9 PM ET; December 13, 9 PM ET.

"Perestroika": Chapter 4: December 15, 9 PM ET; December 18, 10 PM ET; December 29, 11 PM ET. Chapter 5: December 16, 8 PM ET; December 19,10 PM ET; December 29, Midnight. Chapter 6: December 17, 8 PM ET; December 20, 8 PM ET; December 30, 11 PM ET.

HBO2 airdates: Chapters 4-6: December 15, 9 PM ET; December 20, 9 PM ET. Come January, HBO Signature will show separate chapters at 8 PM ET & PT, Mondays through Wednesdays, and at 10 PM ET & PT, Thursdays through Saturdays.

HBO Signature will also show the entire six chapters on January 3, starting at 6 PM ET, and one chapter every Sunday night (9:30 PM ET), starting January 4.

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END QUIZ: Who originated Ben Shenkman's role of Louis Ironson on Broadway? Was it: a) David Marshall Grant; b) Dan Futterman; c) Joe Mantello? (Answer: Next column, December 21)

The October 26 question was: John Cullum received one of his two Tonys for Shenandoah. Who was originally slated to star: a) Jack Palance; b) Robert Ryan; c) Richard Kiley? The answer is a) and b). (Palance was scheduled to play the lead; after he withdrew, Ryan was announced, but he left due to terminal illness.)

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com

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