Issue 14 January-February 1994 RSS

Angels in America: Perestroika


Walter Kerr Theatre, New York

You know there are two kinds of queens - size queens and liars - and I’m convinced Broadway is a happy conspiracy of the two. All along the avenue the promise of drama is nearly always subordinate to the enormity of spectacle. Millennium Approaches, the first instalment of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America ended with a mammoth gesture of an angel (bearing prophetic tidings) plunging through the theatre’s ceiling into the sickbead of Prior, a man living with AIDS. Perestroika, the final instalment to Kushner’s opus, begins at roughly the same point. Prior’s lover Louis Ironson, an American Jew withleft/liberal, has left him. Parallel to his departure, Joe Pitt, a young Mormon lawyer in the employ of Roy Cohn, former aid to Joe McCarthy, has left his wife, a pug-nosed Valium-head named Harper and forging an unlikely alliance with Prior. Joe and Louis fall into bed together. Roy Cohn, meanwhile, has been diagnosed with AIDS. He is haunted in his hospital bed by the spectre of Ethel Rosenberg, the young mother who Cohn sent to the electric chair early in his career. Rosenberg announces that Cohn’s historical moment is up. Prior refuses the role od oracle his own angel wants to thrust on him.

I am telling you this because despite the witty patter, the sense rhetorical tangents that Kushner’s charcters ricochet off on, Perestroika reduces to what I have described. It is, at best, a sentimental story. At worst, it’s a sit-com for people who can afford theatre tickets. That’s not to say, though, that Kushner’s dramaturgy doesn’t embrace complexity within his characters: Joe’s sexual ambivalence, Louis’ abandonment of his sick lover, Rosenberg’s growing sympathy for her executioner’s demise. The theme of transgression is framed by an evasive sense of morality. Louis returns to Prior, and is rejected. Joe returns to his wife, and is rejected. Joe then returns to Louis, who has uncovered his sleazy reactionary past, and is rejected again. Roy Cohn dies and, lo and beold, there is a cache of life-enabling AZT at his bedside, which his nurse (the play’s smart-assed coloured diva) confiscates and redistibutes to the needy, even tossing a bottle Prior’s way. Hannah is kissed by Prior’s (female) angel. Joe’s vacillation - behaviour that confounds and defies categorisation - crumbles into flat villany at the end of the play.

Broadway being a street of happy endings, oerhs Peristroika’s problems stem from a staging that is incapable of supporting Kushner’s more discursive writing. The very name of the play suggests a promise of monumental change. America understands perestroika as the end of an evil empire: the collapse of imperial difference. Beyond that mirage is the cold opening of new markets and exploitation, which provokes questions concerning how ‘political’ artists, or artists who identify as part of communities whose cultural practice spawns traditionally from ‘issues’ and ‘events’ as much as imagination, can approach larger audiences while maintaining the rigours of theoretical and political dialogue. The issues and events that Kushner uses as a backdrop for his drama have long ago outstripped his narrative. AIDS isno longer a ‘gay disease’. Nor is its impact limited to white middle-class American sit-com lives. The US and Europe have contributed to the creation of Africa and Aisia as epicentres of the disease. Of course, that’s not to say that a writer like Kushner is accountable for presenting any of this on the stage. I suppose we are really talking about transgression here. I don’t mean to be a pill, but I am wondering who is transgressing and for what purpose. Perestroika ends on a liberal plea for a humanist end to difference in the name of loftier goals. It is, perhaps, this notion of ‘universal healing’, which sounds so much like an exchange of candy for anger, that prompted The New York Times to note of the play that ‘just about everyone feels more uncomfortable this time’. Underneath that feelgood pillow, antagonisms of personality and historical background between Kushner’s characers have survived. But, these conflicts are couched within a broader problem of fixed moral oppositions that suffocates more challenging dramatic explorations of dislocation and change. On many levels, Angels inAmerica is a success, but the emotional and historical discord Kushner begins to probe in the cavernous spaces of the Walter Kerr Theatre will not coalesce into the single confederation of difference invited by Perestroika’s grand finale. But, you know, that’s show biz.

Lawrence Chua

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First published in
Issue 14, January-February 1994

by Lawrence Chua

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