Seeing a New Disease but the Same Neglect in ‘Angels in America’

Seeing a New Disease but the Same Neglect in ‘Angels in America’

Was ever a man so lordly brought so low? Having contracted the same deadly virus he formerly dismissed as someone else’s pandemic, he now lies in hospital, depending on a secret stash of experimental drugs unavailable to anyone else.

This is of course Roy Cohn, whose reptilian résumé includes stints as the Rosenbergs’ executioner, Nixon’s fixer and Donald J. Trump’s mentor.

You thought I meant someone else?

Certainly the creators of last night’s starry fund-raising film for amfAR — the American Foundation for AIDS Research — intended the double vision. “The Great Work Begins,” subtitled “Scenes From ‘Angels in America,’” is not only a benefit for the organization’s Covid-19 initiatives but also an indictment of the current administration’s cocktail of neglect and delusion in a public health crisis.

Actually, double vision doesn’t begin to encompass the multiplicity of marvels operating concurrently in the full work from which the scenes are excerpted: Tony Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour “gay fantasia on national themes.” Like all classics, it keeps changing as the light of new times strikes it from different angles.

Since 1993, when the first part opened on Broadway, “Angels in America” has been produced all over the world, been revived repeatedly in New York and London, been turned into a Mike Nichols mini-series and even an avant-garde opera. Often in these iterations it has seemed to be about AIDS, of course, for that is its instigating subject. Other times, its ecological, political, religious, romantic, communitarian or cosmological themes have taken precedence.

Today, the light of Covid-19 turns out to be especially harsh and revealing, turning the play, so concerned with prophecy, into a prophet itself. How, it now seems to ask, can we have squandered in just a few months the decades’ worth of suffering and organizing and scientific advances invested in the struggle against AIDS?

To that end, the five excerpts offered by Ellie Heyman, the production’s director, are not randomly chosen, though they may seem so at first: a newcomer to the story would have little idea of what was going on. Aptly, a title card encourages viewers to “let these scenes wash over you.”

Nor does the brilliant casting, gleefully jumbling race and gender and age regardless of the characters’ written traits, encourage narrative coherence. Harper Pitt, the Valium-addicted young wife of a closeted gay Mormon lawyer, is portrayed in the first scene by Vella Lovell, best known for her role on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Later Harper is played, just as gorgeously, by Lois Smith, the 89-year-old stage treasure.

Likewise, Prior Walter, a drag performer beset not only by AIDS but also by strange visions of angels, is played first by Andrew Rannells, later by Paul Dano and finally, most simply and movingly, by Brian Tyree Henry. And Prior’s friend Belize, a nurse, gets three different takes from Larry Owens, S. Epatha Merkerson and Jeremy O. Harris.

If the thread of the story is thus left somewhat frayed, well, narrative coherence was never the play’s top concern anyway. The tumble of ideas and images and outrage was. That all comes through vividly in Heyman’s visual approach, in which the actors were filmed separately and then collaged into group compositions that make them seem to be meeting in some recognizable but not-quite-real plane of imagination, both of earth and above it.

This turns out to be a perfect match for the material, and has been pulled off so glitchlessly as to suggest new directions for streaming theater in general. (The 50-minute film, including interstitial fund-raising pitches, remains available on YouTube through Monday at 9:30 p.m.)

The compositing technique is at its most melodramatically expressive in material that is usually the play’s hardest to pull off: the scene in which the Angel of America holds forth, at some length and in Whitmanesque cadences often difficult to parse, on the disasters human beings have caused by insisting on being human.

Heyman, working with the creative director Paul Tate dePoo III, effectively represents the Angel by her four “emanations,” superimposed so that she sometimes seems to have three eyes or eight, several wide-screen mouths and a not-quite-synchronized choir of big, ranting voices.

We may not comprehend all the words or ideas, but we get the full terror of beings, however divine, spooked by change. That they are played by Patti LuPone, Nikki M. James, Linda Emond and Daphne Rubin-Vega, at their most stentorian, is a bonus, suggesting that heaven may yet be a theater-lover’s paradise.

We get another vision of paradise in the production’s central excerpt: the scene in which Cohn, dying in his hospital room, is confronted by the brilliantly underplaying Merkerson as Belize, who happens to be his nurse. In a neat star turn, Cohn is played as an alternately flinty and squishy old reprobate, saturated in evil and yet still (barely) human, by Glenn Close at her uncompromising best.

Though some of the compound ironies that bring these two together are lost in the lack of context, wonderful new ones arise, as they must from plays that intend to last.

When Cohn, sometimes fully aware of who Belize is — “my Negro night nurse,” he snarls — and sometimes confusing him for the angel of death, asks what heaven is like, Belize’s answer is a killer. Mixing camp and deadly earnest, he offers an ultimately hopeful vision of heaven, which in his cosmology but not Cohn’s includes Balenciaga gowns, red corsages, racial impurity and gender confusion.

And, most importantly, voting booths.

The Great Work Begins: Scenes From ‘Angels in America’
Through Oct 12;

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