The Kushner effect, an angel in American playwriting

The Kushner effect, an angel in American playwriting
Heidi Schreck, left, and Emily Donahoe in Lisa Kron's "The Wake" at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre. (Craig Schwartz, Center Theatre Group)

Few plays have affected me as viscerally as "Angels in America." I can still recall my state of mind in the theater, having traveled to New York from New Haven, where I was in graduate school, to see both parts ("Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika") in a single marathon day in the late fall of 1993. To put the matter clinically, I was overwhelmed.

My uncle had been dead a little more than five years from AIDS, and several friends and acquaintances were battling or had succumbed to the disease. I was in my mid-20s, and the future seemed to me a precarious thing. Military comparisons usually elude me, but I can relate to the guilt of a soldier who has watched his buddies plucked off willy-nilly in battle.

Early on in "Millennium Approaches," when Prior collapses in the apartment he shares with Louis not long after discovering his first KS lesion, I had to talk myself out of leaving the theater. I didn't know if I could handle the scene — and the hospital nightmares to come. Were it not for the palpable connection I felt to my fellow grief-stricken audience members, I would have fled the theater for a train at Grand Central Station and the safety of my book-crammed apartment.

I'm glad I found the courage to stay. I wound up devoting a chapter of my dissertation to "Angels" (anthologized in "Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Tony Kushner," for those interested in a critical discussion of Walter Benjamin's influence on the play). Yet as the years passed and pharmaceutical advances lifted death sentences, I began to wonder if Kushner's magnum opus might be consigned to its historical era — noteworthy mostly as a lightning bolt shot out of the epidemic's dark days in this country.

"Angels," first produced in its entirety at the Mark Taper Forum, is without question the most acute and expansive AIDS play ever written. But the genre must seem like a relic to those who weren't yet born when the disease was ravaging communities in the U.S., challenging the professionalism of health care institutions and testing the tolerance of media outlets that were reluctant to focus attention on what was initially dismissed as the problem of a stigmatized minority. No one can deny the brilliance of Kushner's epic drama, but its significance, I feared, would be tied more to national events than to imaginative acts.

A generation of Kushner-inspired dramatists has assured me that there is no danger of this happening any time soon. Three plays in recent months have pressed an awareness of the continuing artistic impact of "Angels": Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Julia Cho's "The Language Archive" and Lisa's Kron's "In the Wake" (previously titled "The Wake" for its world premiere in March at the Kirk Douglas Theatre). Another play, Christopher Shinn's "Now or Later," which opened in 2008 at London's Royal Court (and which I read while growing impatient for its American premiere to be announced) bears a striking intellectual kinship as well.

I never imagined that such a sui generis work could serve as a playwriting model, but these plays are prompting me to rethink my assumption. Kron's drama is perhaps the most explicitly indebted. Set in the polarizing George W. Bush era, this lesbian fantasia on national themes recalls the country's ethical tailspin through a protagonist whose privileged sense of entitlement (sexual as well as intellectual) stands in sharp contrast to her progressive-minded outrage. Although the painstakingly realistic pacing of "In the Wake" is antithetical to the cerebral quickstep of "Angels," the two works use a volatile chapter in American history as background in their exploration of how the sociopolitical maladies of an age play out in the personal conduct of characters.

"Bengal Tiger," first seen at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in an agile production by Moisés Kaufman that was reprised earlier this spring at the Mark Taper Forum, searches to find our collective moral bearings at the dawn of a new millennium in which the chaos of war has made life cheap and death exasperatingly unresolved. In grappling with the geopolitical trauma of an American-occupied Iraq, Joseph is more interested in drawing unexpected parallels than in dealing out programmatic solutions. But the similarities with Kushner don't end there. They're evident in the tumble of cinematic scenes, in the dream-like logic that routinely permits flights from realism and, most powerfully, in the recognition of the compatibility between humor and grief. Although their subjects are geographically miles apart, their styles share a common border.

Cho's "The Language Archive," which had its world premiere at South Coast Repertory last April, may be the least Kushnerian of the lot. But the play, about a brilliant linguist who ironically has profound communication difficulties in his marriage, takes poignantly whimsical side trips with the protagonist's discontented wife that put me in mind of Harper's free-floating escapades (to Prior's bedroom, a pill-induced Antarctica) in "Millennium Approaches." Cho avails herself of a similar tragicomic freedom while steadfastly preserving the emotional seriousness of her dramatic situation. When we think of "Angels," we tend to think of monumental drama, but its distinctly American form of magical realism entails delicately handled fantasy — a quality that has seeped into the collective playwriting imagination along with the play's unapologetic penchant for big ideas.

"Now or Later," which revolves around a scandal involving the gay Ivy League son of a politician on the verge of being elected the next American president, has an economy that could never be mistaken for Kushner's characteristic sprawl. But the way Shinn unlocks something fundamental about contemporary American political life through gay concerns is in sync with "Angels." This taut drama bridges the gap between the margins and the mainstream, finding connections where others benightedly insist there can be none.

Shinn and Kron have an appreciation for characters who can forcefully argue their points of view on the flashpoints of the day, and this respect for theater as a forum for public debate, while harking back to Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw and all the way to the ancient Greeks, was treated to a spectacular resurgence by Kushner. "Angels" didn't just make issue-laden drama fashionable again but has actually encouraged ambitious playwrights not to be ashamed of their high IQs. Psychological realism, Kushner reminded, isn't the be-all and end-all of our tradition. And intellect and emotion needn't preclude each other.

None of these dramatists is setting out to ape Kushner. But structurally and substantively they have learned from him. Most impressively, they have found ways of balancing their anxiety of influence (to borrow Harold Bloom's catchy phrase to describe the Oedipal nature of a writer's relationship to his or her predecessors) with their openness to keen sources of inspiration.

These plays, which strive for an elusive ideal rather than settling for a more commercially viable status quo, aren't likely to follow in the heralded Broadway footsteps of Kushner, who has returned there in a major way only once, with the musical "Caroline, or Change." But they attest to the strength of the example set for them.

Fortunately, as we wait for Kushner's latest play ("The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures") to have its New York unveiling next spring, "Angels" continues to surprise us with the vitality of its afterlife. When I watched the 2003 HBO-miniseries adaptation directed by Mike Nichols, I was struck by how well the characters had endured beyond their chronologically specific crises. True, it helps to have an ensemble featuring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker and Emma Thompson, but the roles invite actors to wholly inhabit them with their textured life.

If any more proof of the relevance of Kushner's masterwork is needed, look what's become one of the hottest tickets in New York next fall: the Signature Theater Company's off-Broadway production of "Angels," both parts performed in rep as part of its season devoted to the playwright. The chance to revisit history is certainly one of the attractions, but searing drama is what gets a box office buzzing.