Backstage: Tony Kushner


Among the many issues in “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s millennial epic about gay men coping with the AIDS pandemic in Ronald Reagan’s America, is that overused word in the national lexicon: “Change.”

The play offers an answer to the question: “How do people change?” — from a talking “dummy,” the mother figure in a western diorama: “God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge, filthy hand in ….”

If that sounds painful. It’s meant to.

Nearly two decades after writing the passage, Kushner says that change, personal or political, hasn’t become any easier. On the eve of the first major revival of his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, at New York’s intimate off-Broadway Signature Theatre, the playwright adds that, if anything, progress seems more painful than ever.


“Change is always about loss, and we’re losing all the time,” he says. “We tend to learn through holocaust, more effectively and thoroughly, than by anticipating the holocaust. It would be great if we could change our course knowing that if we don’t, then something truly horrendous and unforgiving is about to happen. But we rarely catch it in time.”

Graphing that all-too-human resistance to change and the complications that come in its wake is a leitmotif of the sprawling Kushner oeuvre, including “Angels,” the musical “Caroline, Or Change,” and his newest play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.” The revival of “Angels,” directed by longtime Kushner collaborator Michael Greif, is the inaugural production of the Signature’s season devoted to Kushner’s work. It will be followed by the New York premiere of “Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” (what the playwright calls “IHO”) and concluding with his loose adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s visionary “The Illusion.”

He is also putting the finishing touches on an Abraham Lincoln film script for Steven Spielberg. It’s little wonder that Kushner, 54, collapses onto a bench in the foyer of the Signature with a bone-tired weariness on an early fall evening. Cradling his head in his hands, he apologizes for “stumbling” over some answers. For Kushner, that simply means there is the occasional pause between lengthy disquisitions shaped by his leftist ideology and steel-trap intellect. Since gaining fame, he has sharpened those talents not only for stage and film (“Munich”) but also as a political activist, speaking at rallies and writing commentaries.

Despite his fatigue, the playwright displays a characteristic passion when asked whether he’s worried that “Angels” might be outdated since its premiere in the early ‘90s, when it brought him onto the national stage. After all, when he first began to write about New York gays struggling for love and survival against a backdrop of social and political ferment migrating across spheres and levels of reality, Reagan was just finishing a second term. When the American premiere of “Millennium Approaches,” the first part of the play, took place at the Mark Taper Forum in November 1992, Bill Clinton had just been elected to the Oval Office. George W. Bush was president when Mike Nichols’ award-winning HBO special of “Angels” aired. Now this production opens on the cusp of midterm elections in the Obama era.

“It’s scarily timely, in some ways that I wish it wasn’t,” says Kushner, going on to list the social and political ills that have dark resonance in the play: what he calls the “eco-cide” of global warming, the rise of the reactionary right in response to Obama’s election, and the suicides and beatings of young gay men.

“And the spookiest thing of all,” he concludes, “has to do with AIDS. When the play was written there were 7 million people with the disease. There are now 33 million. We’ve gone from the terrible silence about AIDS described in the play to AIDS being in the news all the time, to it virtually becoming invisible once again.”


While Kushner acknowledges what he sees as progress in the intervening decades, he bristles with contempt in speaking of “the lunatics of the tea party,” which he maintains have their origins in the “Reagan counter-revolution.” That latter movement is illuminated through “Angels” in the galvanizing person of the right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn (played here by Frank Woods in a cast that includes Christian Borle as the AIDS-stricken Prior Walter, Zachary Quinto as his faithless lover Louis, Bill Heck as the closeted Mormon Joe Pitt and Zoe Kazan as his valium-popping, unhappy wife). “We’ve had a couple of stabs at getting rid of this political madness, but we’re at a very dark, tense time now. We’re at the crossroads.”

Kushner’s alarm is unsurprising given his liberalism, shaped in part by growing up Jewish and gay in Lake Charles, La., as the son of musicians before heading north to attend Columbia and New York universities. But to watch “Angels” again is to be struck by how, like George Bernard Shaw, Kushner places the most persuasive arguments into the mouths of characters such as the unrepentantly power-hungry Cohn and Hannah Pitt, the conservative Mormon mother who arguably changes the most when she grapples with her son’s tortured coming-out.

Kushner says that stems from a primary desire to entertain rather than to be polemical — though he has been accused of just that. Conservative gay blogger Andrew Sullivan has said that “Angels” “.... tries to coerce human suffering into a cartoonish ideological rubric.”

To that charge, the playwright rather defensively replies: “I don’t think my plays are polemical. I don’t think you can be if you deal in paradox and contradiction. Everyone has principles, an ideological program to which they are more or less consciously adherent, ways in which they fail or ways in which their lives don’t fit comfortably with what they profess to believe. And if you’re not nuts and you have some kind of inner life, you experience those contradictions as internal stresses that have to be reconciled.” Quoting the late playwright Charles Ludlam, Kushner concludes, “Either you’re a mockery of your own ideals or your ideals are too low.”

When asked how he might be a mockery of his own deals, Kushner laughs and says, “I have no intention of sharing that with you!” But he goes on to catalog the many ways he fails in what he aspires to be. “I’d like to be more of an activist, a better Jew, more self-sacrificing, less governed by my fears. I’d like to be more loving and true to my friends and more generous and compassionate to my enemies. And I’d like not to have spent the last 20 minutes describing everybody I don’t agree with as a mentally unbalanced person!”

The playwright pauses, squinting through horn-rimmed glasses and rubbing his forehead. “I’d like to be ‘a more serious character,’ as Ezra Pound puts it,” he continues, “someone who lives in the depths and who has a kind of amphibious existence, half in the depths, half on the rock sunning himself. Less of a toad and more of deep-sea diver. But we all let ourselves down, we let other people down and you struggle to change and grow.”


Greif thinks the playwright is being a little hard on himself. “Tony holds himself and the people he works with to an extraordinary standard,” Greif says. “So there is an intensity to the work, but there is also a stunning clarity and generosity about what the goals are.

Professionally, Kushner says growth has come in the area of film, learning from such masters as Nichols and Spielberg, for whom he co-wrote, with Eric Roth, the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Munich.” From Spielberg, especially, he has learned the importance of “storytelling,” especially in the course of working on “Lincoln” for him for the past five or six years.

When the Lincoln project was announced, some people thought Kushner’s screenplay might explore the gay rumors surrounding the 16th president. But he says he was more interested in capturing “... an inexhaustibly interesting person in the middle of the most significant years of American history and the greatest genius of small-’d’ democracy who nonetheless accomplished many revolutionary things.”

Kushner says that he hopes the Lincoln film can aim for depth and complexity but with a populist clarity. “I feel that I’m finally less of a playwright who writes screenplays and more of playwright who is also kind of a screenwriter.”

Not that he’s likely to abandon the fierce and uncompromising density of his work. “IHO,” an ambitious bursting-at-the seams, operatic family drama, had its world premiere when Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater hosted a Kushner season last year. The fireworks are set off when Gus Marcantonio, an Brooklyn longshoreman and Marxist, summons his family to tell them he plans to kill himself. Among the family members are Bennie, Gus’ sister and a former nun turned Maoist; a lesbian labor-lawyer daughter, Empty,; and his sons: Vito, a blue-collar worker married to a Korean American, and Pill, a gay academic whose spouse is black. (Kushner has been married for many years to Mark Harris, a senior editor of “Entertainment Weekly” and the author of “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the five Academy Award-nominated films in from the transitional year 1967.)

According to a Variety critic, “IHO” is “.... sprawling, yearning, at times emotionally violent. Every passion in the characters’ lives is a contradiction, each pleasure arriving with thorny conditions.”


“That is what makes the left the left,” Kushner says. “One is constantly needing to interrogate one’s own assumptions.” To the charge that he preaches to the converted, the playwright responds that a great preacher has a duty not to offer bromides to the congregation.

“A great preacher starts with the doubt and uncertainty and skepticism that are the necessary concomitants of faith,” he says. “He starts in the scary places, in the places where God is silent, in the places where God seems cruel, in the places where the world is not just and where people are ground to dust by monstrous, even satanic, forces where God doesn’t intervene. Or where you ceaselessly betray God in your heart and your actions. You start there and progress toward whatever hope for change and light you can find. It’s true of the prophets, it’s true of John Donne, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. And it’s true of artists.”