Tony Kushner, thinking citizen: The playwright on ‘Angels in America,’ ‘West Side Story’ and surviving Trump
Hungry and weary after getting off a plane earlier in the day, Tony Kushner was running a few minutes late. We met in the lobby of the campus hotel at UCLA, where he was appearing that evening with author Sarah Vowell to talk about their mutual love for Abraham Lincoln.
He apologized for ordering a pizza, but travel, stress and the limited late-afternoon bar menu demanded comfort food. The event at Royce Hall marked the end of the California leg of this American history kibitzing tour, but Lincoln wasn’t foremost on his mind.
Nor was the USC production of “A Bright Room Called Day,” directed by Kushner’s old friend David Warshofsky, that the playwright managed to shoehorn into his West Coast itinerary. Kushner is revisiting the play for the Trump era, but the project is still at an exploratory phase and a more significant drama from his past is eclipsing all other activities.
“Angels in America,” his magnum opus, is having major revivals on both coasts this spring. Kushner had just been to the Bay Area to check in on rehearsals of the Berkeley Rep production and was flying home the next day to New York, where the heralded National Theatre production was about to start previews at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.
“Do you want a Xanax? I have some upstairs,” he joked after I confessed to being anxious about keeping him on schedule. (For the record, I opted for black coffee while Kushner, exercising his famous volubility, graciously allowed our scheduled hour to nearly double in length.)
The world premiere of “Angels in America, Parts One and Two” was presented at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992. Success, on a level that hasn’t been matched by Kushner or any other American playwright since, was turbocharged by gratitude for a play that provided a forum for public grief. With two Tony Awards for best play, a Pulitzer Prize for drama and an award-showered HBO film by Mike Nichols, “Angels” is one of the less disputable modern classics.
One test of a masterpiece is the ability to reflect and comment on changing times. Kushner’s drama, which was always too expansive to be contained within the AIDS play genre, struck me when I saw Marianne Elliott’s stunningly balanced production in London last summer as the most acute analysis of the current political zeitgeist I’ve encountered in the theater.
With the play’s historical villain Roy M. Cohn back in the news because of his protégé President Trump — surely I wasn’t the only one who thought Kushner had scripted Trump’s reported remark, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — the timing of these revivals couldn’t be better. So why did Kushner look as though he were about to face a firing squad?
“Broadway is nothing but anxiety,” he explained. “It’s a long play and in the limited run we’re selling in New York you have to see the whole megillah. We have a guaranteed young audience. The problem is the cost of tickets, but I’m reassured that if you put any effort into it you can find a way not to pay a horrible amount of money.”
It’s been a long time since Kushner was last on Broadway — 14 years to be exact. That’s when “Caroline, or Change,” the musical he wrote with Jeanine Tesori about the dawning of his racial consciousness growing up in Louisiana in the tumultuous 1960s, was at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. To think that David Mamet has been on Broadway 10 times during this period is sobering. Broadway may be making room for the occasional unorthodox play (Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” say, or Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2”), but musicals and celebrity-packaged drama are what lure the tourist masses.
Kushner shrugs off the topic with a question: “What have I written?” One answer is his 2009 play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” but as indicated by that mouthful of a title (contracted to “iHo” by necessity), Kushner hasn’t been pandering to commercial tastes.
He saves his ideas with broader appeal perhaps for the movies. His collaborations with Steven Spielberg (“Munich,” “Lincoln”) have been richly satisfying personally, artistically and (presumably) financially. They have been working, among other projects, on a remake of “West Side Story,” which Kushner wasn’t hesitant to discuss when asked about the ensuing controversy over two white men undertaking this renovation job.
“I mean, it’s a little tricky with ‘West Side Story,’ which was written by four Jewish guys,” Kushner said. “It’s also not exclusively about Puerto Ricans. It’s about white guys and Puerto Rican guys and white girls and Puerto Rican girls. So what does that mean, we should have two directors and two screenwriters? I’m not just saying this to cover my ass. I’m a big believer in identity politics and political correctness. Why shouldn’t we want to be politically correct, if by correct you mean not toeing the party line but toeing the line of history, being on the right side of history, being moral and ethical.”
His deliberation was only warming up: “There needs to be a commitment to the idea of culture not as a real estate battle, though sometimes battles have to be waged. But I think culture is happiest when it’s a dialogue. I’m aware of my privileged position, but do I believe I’m doing something wrong by writing ‘West Side Story’? I absolutely do not. I’m much more afraid of the musical theater queens.”
Holding up as an example “Homebody/Kabul,” his prescient 2001 play about Afghanistan, Kushner said his experience as a dramatist — researching foreign cultures, identifying with diverse characters and relying on the input of collaborators from varied backgrounds — helps him navigate these waters. But has theater taken a back seat in his career?
No one witnessing the intensity he’s lavishing on these revivals of “Angels” would think so. A play about the political rise of Trump is in the works, and Kushner made passing reference to a musical (with Tesori) about the death of O’Neill, but his portfolio has undeniably diversified. When asked if his swerve into the American musical with “Caroline, or Change” or his focus on screenwriting could be a way to avoid competing with the landmark accomplishment of “Angels,” he smiled a psychoanalytic smile.
Do I believe I’m doing something wrong by writing ‘West Side Story’? I absolutely do not.
Tony Kushner, who’s working on a remake with director Steven Spielberg
Kushner rejected the idea that his greatest success has in any way inhibited him but admitted that the work still consumes a good deal of his time: “There was certainly a period when all I ever did was go to productions of ‘Angels.’ I made an official decision at one point to stop watching the play because I just had to get the characters out of my head. But then ‘Angels’ comes back periodically, and it’s never all that far away. It’s going to be the thing I’m most remembered for having done.”
Could this be why he’s still tinkering with the script? For the Broadway production, Kushner said he’s done a significant enough rewrite of “Perestroika” to warrant a new edition of the play. He also said he takes prolific rehearsal notes, and by prolific he seemed to suggest by Joyce Carol Oates standards.
“I trained as a director,” he said. “I’m not a great director, but I’m a reasonably good director and I can’t turn that off. I watch run-throughs or previews as a director does, and I work very hard on the notes. I’m thinking of putting together a book, a user’s guide to the play, by taking all the notes and offering brief descriptions of the characters and then walking actors and directors through the entire thing. Not that it’s the only way to do the play, but it’s one way that I believe will always work.”
Speaking in a meditative murmur, Kushner marshals sentences so filled with qualifications that they often seem as if they might never come to a full stop. The dialectical intelligence that shines in his plays is evident in the way his every utterance is subject to second thoughts.
Take Broadway. Kushner loves being part of a tradition that includes O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Describing himself as “a big proscenium arch guy,” he said that Broadway theaters are “the most beautiful dramatic houses on the planet.” But he doesn’t believe that he or the talented American playwrights who have followed him should hold out much hope.
“There are 60,000 serious theatergoers in New York City,” Kushner said. “I don’t know where I got that number from but I’m sure I’m right. Cycle through them, you’re in a different world, and that’s not many weeks of performance in a Broadway house. These great new writers — Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Sam Hunter, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins — are really wonderful. I’m jealous of them. But I think it’s important that we not accept the lie that a Broadway production is what you get when you’ve really accomplished something.”
Any hesitancy Kushner has about the reemergence of “Angels” on Broadway has to do with his worries about “other people’s money.” “I love the production,” he said, ticking off praise for an ensemble that includes Andrew Garfield in the role of Prior Walter and Nathan Lane in yet another career peak as Roy Cohn.
“Andrew is a gorgeous spirit who more than other Priors is interested in the theological dimension of the role,” Kushner said. Sharing my high opinion of Garfield’s sacrificial commitment in his stage work, Kushner tenderly worried about the toll on such a sensitive actor. “It’s a miserably difficult part. You’re in a state of terror pretty much everywhere but the first act of ‘Millennium,’ and you’re not in a great place there. Andrew is fearless and unsparing, but he may have to develop ways to protect himself.”
As for Lane, Kushner was unrestrained in his enthusiasm: “It’s so unusual for a great comic actor to be good at things that aren’t comic. Comedy is its own rigorous and unrelenting discipline, and vulnerability is not a great thing in a comic. Nathan’s appetite to tackle parts like Hickey in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ is incredible. Boy, I hope he does ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ I’ve never seen anyone who works harder. There’s nothing diva-ish about him. And his ear for language makes me just want to float out of the room because nothing gets by him.”
The Berkeley Rep production has a few casting coups of its own. Stephen Spinella, who won two Tony Awards for playing Prior, is taking on the role of Roy Cohn, and Caldwell Tidicue (better known as Bob the Drag Queen from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) is playing Belize, Prior’s staunch friend and Roy’s formidable nurse.
Kushner, who knew he wanted to work with Spinella when he first saw him on stage at NYU’s graduate theater program, considers the actor one of his muses. He wrote the character of Prior expressly for him but has no doubt that his versatile friend has on his palette the appalling colors of Roy’s unbridled savagery.
A confessed addict of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Kushner was dazzled by the season with Bob the Drag Queen. “I knew right away this guy is an actor. When we started casting, we Googled his site and there’s a little button that says, ‘Contact the drag queen.’ I had the theater make the initial contact, but it was my idea.”
Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, who shepherded “Angels” into existence with Oskar Eustis when the two were at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre in the 1980s and later co-directed (with Eustis) the Taper production, insisted that nostalgia isn’t motivating him.
“Visiting ‘Angels’ seemed especially urgent now that everything has become so fractious and divisive and filled, certainly among my friends, with a kind of despair,” Taccone said in a phone interview. “I wanted to do something that felt like a primal validation of who we are as Americans, as thinking citizens. For all the calamity in the play, the vision is ultimately optimistic.”
Kushner, the thinking citizen par excellence, wishes the play weren’t so terrifyingly resonant. “Angels” will still work, he said, once we get Trump’s “god-awful, ego-anarchist, anti-government, crypto-fascist, plutocratic, kleptocratic garbage out of our system.” In the meantime, he’d like to bait Trump into a Twitter tirade but doesn’t know how to reach him unless he goes on “Fox & Friends.”
Sounding a bit like Prior in the play’s final moments, Kushner said that “the plague” of Trump would not be the end of our democracy. For all his rational political paranoia, the playwright shares Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidence in the benevolent long-term bend of the moral universe. “Angels in America” is a testament to his faith.
“One of the great heroic things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime is the way the LGBTQ community refused to accept this biological catastrophe as a moral judgment or let it stall our demand for justice. We incorporated the horror into the struggle.”
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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