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Commentary: A luminous ‘Angels in America’ benefit speaks to our COVID-19 moment

Brandon Uranowitz, Brian Tyree Henry, Laura Linney and Jeremy O. Harris in “Scenes From Angels in America”
Brandon Uranowitz, left, Brian Tyree Henry, Laura Linney and Jeremy O. Harris in a scene from the amFAR online benefit performance of “Scenes From Angels in America.”
(Creative Direction: Paul Tate dePoo III)

The theater played a significant role in drawing public attention to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s, and the greatest work from this period, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” has been called into service as a different virus upends our lives.

“The Great Work Begins: Scenes From Angels in America” had its livestream premiere Thursday with a dream cast that includes Glenn Close, Brian Tyree Henry, Laura Linney, Paul Dano, Andrew Rannells and Patti LuPone, among other luminaries. The work, available through Monday on Broadway.com’s YouTube channel, is a benefit to support the Fund to Fight COVID-19 set up by amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

The actors, isolating at home during the pandemic, filmed themselves. A team of editors and technicians, working with the production’s director, Ellie Heyman, artfully collaged the material to make it seem as though Rannells’ Prior and Vella Lovell’s Harper were experiencing their shared hallucination from the same locale, to take the example of the first incorporated scene.

Quarantine has proved a springboard for creative experimentation and nontraditional casting. There’s a research and development value to this rendition of “Angels in America” that should inform future productions of the modern classic.

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The celestial chapters are given the boldest multimedia treatment. The faces of the actors playing the angels (Linda Emond, Nikki James, Daphne Rubin-Vega and the one and only LuPone) blur into one another in a manner that evokes the treatment of the weird sisters in film adaptations of “Macbeth.” Context is missing but moments of resonance are ignited, as when the angel played by James intones: “Before life on Earth becomes finally merely impossible, / It will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.”

Multiple actors take on the roles of Prior, Harper and Belize without regard to race, gender or age. Prior, who’s suffering from AIDS and the heartache of having been abandoned by Louis, his lover, is played by Rannells, Dano and Henry. Harper, the depressed Mormon housewife who begins to suspect her straitlaced lawyer husband is gay, is shared by Lovell and the evergreen 89-year-old Lois Smith. Close gasps as Roy M. Cohn on his deathbed, and Belize, the nurse, is played by Larry Owens, S. Epatha Merkerson and playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

Joe Pitt, Harper’s closeted husband, is missing in action. Brandon Uranowitz takes on the part of guilty, self-rationalizing Louis in the character’s only appearance.

Linney has sole dibs on Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother who comes to New York to rescue her spiraling son. But in her one scene, the Central Park finale that closes Part 2, she stands beside Uranowitz’s Louis, Henry’s Prior and Harris’ Belize not as a maternal figure but as a peer, moving into the future with the help of her disputatious yet tenderly accepting friends.

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The selection of scenes isn’t meant to capture the full scale of the epic, which had its two-part premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992. The play is fragmented for a higher purpose: to shore up the vulnerable present through the example of the past, in which marginalized communities came together to confront an epidemiological tragedy that had been egregiously worsened by political incompetence and malfeasance.

The film starts with images of healthcare workers grappling with the COVID-19 emergency. The following words then appear on the screen: “In a time when hospitals are overflowing, and we do not know how to process these events … we reach back to 1986.”

In an interview with Slate, Kushner acknowledged, “It’s a different kind of pandemic” while laying out the parallels: “We have yet again a combination of a biological disaster and right-wing Republican chicanery colliding catastrophically. And their antisocial, anti-democratic psychotic individualism again manifesting at exactly the moment when it’s imperative that people remember how interconnected we all are.”

The enduring genius of “Angels in America” is the way Kushner, in peering into a health crisis that disproportionately afflicted stigmatized communities, saw through to the chronic pathology of an America that had once again sacrificed justice and compassion for power and greed. In the 2018 Broadway revival, a London import directed by Marianne Elliott, Nathan Lane’s scaldingly brilliant performance as Roy Cohn seemed to offer an X-ray into the warped soul of Cohn’s real-life protégé Donald Trump.

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COVID-19, like AIDS before it, has exposed and exacerbated deadly systemic inequities. Kushner’s work provides both a powerful diagnostic tool for understanding the expansive dimensions of the emergency and a communal road map to get us from alienation and grief to solidarity and healing.

The most moving scenes in this compilation are the first and the last. Rannells’ ailing Prior and Lovell’s distraught Harper, in their surreal encounter, see so deeply into each other’s tragedy that they recognize the purity that exists beyond a gay man’s unchecked HIV and a trapped housewife’s Valium addiction.

The Trump presidency has thrown the nation into a narrative crisis. How can we make sense of a political story that drops new bombshells daily?

The final scene, which takes place by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, gives us a portrait of the “Angels” I hope to see next — with an African American Prior standing tall in his survival after the ravages of disease, abandonment and governmental indifference. As Henry’s Prior orchestrates the concluding speeches, Harris’ Belize relates the myth around the fountain of Bethesda: “If anyone who was suffering, in the body or the spirit, walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, they would be healed, washed clean of pain.”

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Art too has curative properties, and “Angels in America,” even in a fragmented presentation, feels like balm at a time when once again a new virus has combined with the lethal pathogens of bigotry and political malice. The commitment of the actors, who are joined by Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Cumming and Jake Gyllenhaal in impassioned interstitial commentaries and requests for support, touched me every bit as much as the lines they were speaking.

Glenn Close as Roy M. Cohn in "Scenes From Angels in America"
(Paul Tate dePoo III)

“Angels” ventures up to heaven, but the devil is given his due. The image of Close’s Roy Cohn struggling for breath while antagonizing Merkerson’s Belize vividly conveys the sickness of our time. This closeted gay political henchman dying from AIDS believes, in his unapologetic racism, that his Black nurse is his negation, eager to escort him to the underworld. Irascible yet frightened in his helplessness, he asks for a portrait of the afterlife and is given an image of a harmoniously diverse San Francisco, “full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion.”

Roy’s hell is actually a vision of an American paradise many are still fighting to achieve. The old battle has raged intensely throughout this epically horrible 2020, with an election looming to decide the fate of a more than 200-year-old democracy.

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This unorthodox showing of Kushner’s play couldn’t have been more cathartically timed. I’ll admit I was emotionally leveled at the end. But after I gathered myself, I found my vision was clearer, my conviction firmer and my sense of empowerment boosted by the values of artists who refuse to give up on the soul of our nation.


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