Friday, December 19, 2003

angels in america, part 2

Movies also have a way of deadening the magic of live theater.

For the most part, the movie version actually broke free of the play in good ways. There are moments when the actual visualization doesn't do justice to the word images (the whole drag queen and 20 professional Sicilian mourners funeral sounds much funnier than it looks when we actually see it). The descending feather has at the end of the first play has much more impact on a stage than it does in a movie. We imagine less in movies, and imagination is one of the most powerful effects one experiences in a play.

Roy Cohn eats up the play in scene after scene -- in the New York production, it was amazing to watch the misted spittle coming out of actor Ron Liebman's mouth, caught by the lights, as he overwhelmed an entire theater. Cohn says he wishes he could be an octopus and Liebman almost made him into one. Pacino played this role as subtle as possible, giving Cohn some interior sweetness to his madman anger that let's us tolerate for a time this fellow who enjoyed being outrageous.

Meryl Streep was adequate as Mother Pitt, a person who has no time for emotion, tough and capable of surprising us. She was excellent as Ethel Rosenberg, the ghost who haunts Cohn in his last days.

Emma Thompson. Ah, sweet Emma. She is the Angel, arriving from a heaven that was deserted by God in 1906 on the same day as the San Francisco earthquake. In the play, the main cast switched around to play other minor roles, and that is done a few times in this production. Thompson also plays a sympathetic doctor. May I say that Emma does not look good in the particular butch haircut they give her for this role. The cut was severe, the color was dark, and with the dark eyebrows given her, it was hard to notice her wonderful eyes. Her wonderful voice was made huskier, and American. And Emma Thompson has such a wonderful voice. Certainly a minor quibble.

At one point, Prior, the AIDS patient, wrestles with the angel. Thompson is stylishly dressed in black with Wonder Woman bronze arm bands, and tasteful two-toned white and black feathered wings. I will always remember that image of her, struggling and writhing.

Justin Kirk plays Prior Walter, a blue blood descendant who lives in New York's gay world of the 80s. I've seen Kirk twice in plays and find his voice very distinctive in a Katharine Hepburn sort of way. It cuts through, and he uses it well, particularly when he's angry. I thought he was fine.

Patrick Wilson is the preppie closeted Mormon Republican, a category that appears to represent for Kushner his worst disdain. Patrick Wilson, a musical theater star (recent Oklahoma revival), and Mary-Louise Parker, his valium addicted wife, walk through their parts wide-eyed, not really emotional but in awe that the world that believed in so strongly in does not match the world they inhabit nor the desires of their hearts.

Ben Shenkman is Louis, Prior's whinny boyfriend, a man prone to see all things through abstraction. Jeffrey Wright reprises his New York performance of Belize, a strong and swishy male nurse and Prior's best friend. Of all the performers, he is least likely to make long speeches. His performance, too, is much more restrained than the stage production. The director Joe Mantello played Louis in the play and I wish he could have done it in the movie. His Louis wasn't just an inflection. He boiled over with abstractions.

Mike Nichols directed, and his vision of this fantasia on American themes, appears to have corralled Kushner's play into a powerful movie.

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