Original ‘Angels in America’ Reclaimed the Stage for Ambitious Theater (Column)

Joan Marcus/Photofest
Joan Marcus/Photofest

I don’t think I’d heard a word about “Angels in America” before I saw it in London. I had seen one play of Kushner’s, “A Bright Room Called Day,” and panned it. But I certainly knew about Declan Donnellan, who was directing, and it sounded interesting to me mainly because of the subject. It was so long ago, who knows? Maybe I only went because I didn’t get into “Aspects of Love”! (Just joking.)

I remember I only saw the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” that night, in this tiny space at the National. It was electrifying. It was hardly the first play about AIDS, obviously — it was relatively late to the game, given that the crisis had been full-blown for a good decade at that point. But what was exciting about “Angels in America” then, and now, is the fact that Kushner was willing to address not just AIDS but also American history in the biggest possible way, and somehow to find a way to do it that’s not stentorian, and through so many different means of theater, from hallucination to poetry to spectacle.

In many ways, “Angels in America” reclaimed the American stage for really ambitious theater. It went against the usual strictures of a small cast and a small set. It showed you could come in with an ensemble piece with no stars in it and say something important and be heard and have a long afterlife.

Since then the AIDS story has changed, of course, in terms of medical science and advancements in treatment. But the play remains very, very much alive today, because the individual fights of these characters, gay and straight, with AIDS and with other obstacles in their lives, remain universal and beautifully written.

People will find fresh meaning in “Angels in America.” I know I did, when I saw the production in London last year. The world is moving forward and backward at the same time, so I think it very much speaks not just to now, to the Trump moment, but it speaks in a kind of permanent way in the way that classic American plays can and do. “A Streetcar Named Desire” takes place in a New Orleans that hardly exists anymore, but that play doesn’t look dated at all.

As told to Gordon Cox by Frank Rich, the former theater critic at the New York Times who is now writer-at-large at New York magazine and an executive producer on HBO’s “Veep” and “Succession.”