Sunday, February 25, 2018

Angels In America by Tony Kushner (The Empty Space 2018)

This play wasn’t originally on my list, but after seeing the cast list, I realized that it contained several actors who I try to see whenever possible, so my wife and I decided to go ahead and see the two parts on consecutive nights.

It is kind of weird to realize that Angels In America is more than 25 years old. I truly am getting old, I guess. When it came out, it was controversial, and boycotts and political drama followed. (For an interesting tale of how it played out in Charlotte, see here.) As with most boycotted works, the controversy was good for publicity, as it turned out.

The play - two plays actually - is quite long, clocking in at a combined six and a half hours in this production. I compare it to Wagner - it rambles. Kushner probably could have used an editor, in my opinion. On the other hand, it isn’t easy to say exactly where to cut. It is a long story, a long arc, with multiple plot lines that are really all necessary. So, two nights worth of story, and some late bedtimes.


The play centers around five gay men, one of which was a historical person: Roy Cohn. Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s right hand man during the Red Scare and communist witch hunts of the 1950s. He was instrumental in obtaining the conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs, and pretty clearly committed major ethical and legal violations along the way. (As Alan Dershowitz memorably put it, the Rosenbergs were “guilty - and framed.” The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg is a character in the play, and haunts the dying Cohn.

McCarthy was, of course, a notorious gay-baiter, relentlessly associating gays with communism. In fact, the longtime exclusion of gays from the military was a McCarthy legacy, and our current dispute over transgender service can be traced back to the same root.

But Cohn was every bit as bad as McCarthy - just a list of the reasons he was eventually disbarred is telling. (I mean, pretty much outright theft from clients, witness bribing and intimidation, ex-parte communications, lying under oath - it’s a long and ugly list and an embarrassment to my profession.)

And yes, Cohn died of AIDS. He denied this to his death, insisting it was liver cancer, and insisting that he wasn’t gay. I guess he liked sex with men plenty, but to be “gay” was to be weak, and he wasn’t weak. There are several scenes in the play that really bring this out well.

Cohn is portrayed by Brian Sivesind, longtime executive director and founder of The Empty Space, local theater professor, and acting regular. I thought his work in this play was outstanding. I have long loved his acting (since my wife and my first date!) and he did not disappoint. Sivesind is quite at home as a villain. (His portrayal of Iago a couple of years ago was also fantastic.) 

 Brian Sivesind as Roy Cohn

Cohn’s (fictional) lackey is Joe, clerk for an appellate judge. Joe is conservative, strait-laced, and Mormon. And also in denial about his homosexuality. Joe is married to Harper, a Mormon woman with a bad childhood and a current valium addiction. Her love for Joe is unreciprocated, essentially, and she escapes to unreality.

Working with Joe is a copy clerk, Louis, whose partner, Prior, has just announced his AIDS diagnosis. Louis can’t handle it - grief and death are not his thing - and leaves, abandoning Prior, and eventually having a fling with Joe, who finally has to come to terms with who he is.

Prior, for his part, doesn’t handle the abandonment well, and ends up having a series of dreams in which an angel appears to him. (This is where the story veers into Magical Realism territory.)

The final character is Belize, the African American gay nurse who is friends with Louis and Prior, and who cares for Roy in his final illness.

I won’t get any further into the plot than that, but it is those six characters (Roy, Joe, Harper, Louis, Prior, and Belize) whose stories make up most of the play. Add in the ghost of Ethel, the angel, Prior’s nurse, and Joe’s mother, and you have most of the speaking parts.

Angels In America is a bit of its time. I am the right age to recognize most of the political figures - even the more minor ones - and get the cultural references. It was an experience to remember how it felt back in those days, and just how disorienting and terrifying AIDS was, and how vicious the rhetoric that fear produced really was. For that reason, this was an uncomfortable play to watch. Kushner doesn’t pull punches - McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare are presented in all their ugliness, as is the 80s greed and excess.

On the other hand, the character of Cohn is hardly a stock villain. He is both a perpetrator of evil and a victim of a horrible disease. He is pretty thoroughly loathsome, and yet his suffering is sympathetically portrayed.

Prior, portrayed in this version by Justin Salinas, another veteran of local theater, is emotional, mystic, a bit unhinged. It is hard to blame him. Contracting a terminal and painful disease at a young age is bad enough, but being recruited as a prophet by an angel who seems more malevolent than benign is worse. Salinas is almost a bit too big for the small venue, and some of his acting seemed a bit overacted, particularly the scenes with the angel. On the other hand, he and Lewis had good chemistry in their failing relationship, and I thought he carried those scenes well. 

 Justin Brooks as Louis (l) and Justin Salinas as Prior (r)

Louis is a particularly interesting character. A Jew with carefully built self-protective walls, an endless flow of largely senseless political and philosophical musings, and an inability to deal well with pain and death, he is essentially Tony Kushner’s character. Conflicted, wracked with guilt, and self absorbed, he isn’t exactly likeable, but he represents a lot of uncomfortable truth about privilege and entitlement. Despite his leftist politics, he is actually more of a personification of the selfishness that Joe’s Ayn Rand politics represents than Joe himself. Local high school French teacher Justin Brooks played Louis. I hadn’t seen Brooks in anything that I could remember, but he really nailed the discomfort of Louis, and drew those emotional walls well. (Kind of weird if you think about it: the emotional vulnerability necessary to act and portray emotional walls.) Brooks was more self-contained than the other actors (except Harper - see below), which was a contrast to the other characters, who were often larger than life. Louis is a mensch, the everyman in this drama, and his failures and blundering around are all too familiar to me. Prior sums up Louis’ emotional distance pretty well with this line:

“You cry, but you endanger nothing in yourself. It's like the idea of crying when you do it. Or the idea of love.”

Joe was played by Daniel Korth, who I last saw as one of two actors in The Woman in Black. Here, clean shaven, clean cut, and so obviously a legal flunky (great costuming!), he was thoroughly convincing in his role. At a time when a real life gay Mormon with a failed marriage, his part of the story seems as relevant as ever. It should come as no surprise that women too, despite the gender essentialism the conservative religions feed us, have sexual desire, and crave to be wanted and needed that way. In this play, Joe experiences two temptations, of very different sorts, which makes for a contrast.

On the one hand, he is gay, and incapable of a true marriage to Harper. Thus, he cruises the park, and eventually has the affair with Louis. Despite his attempts, his marriage is doomed.

The other temptation, though, is the one offered by Cohn. Get that dream job, go to Washington, and be somebody. All he has to do is sell his soul. Ultimately, Joe has to choose on both. Will he be true to his nature? What would that mean? I believe that for Joe, that means that he has to acknowledge that he is gay - and also that he is not a sellout. His innate sense of ethics is part of him too, and for him to be whole, he will need to stop succumbing to the pressure to be a right-wing warrior at the cost of his ethics. I thought Korth did an outstanding job of portraying all of this. I will make an effort to see him more often, as he has real talent. 

 Daniel Korth as Joe and Ellie Sivesind as Harper

Another actor who is on my short list these days is Tevin Joslen, who I wrote about regarding Hamlet at Bakersfield College, and Ragtime at Stars. In Angels In America, he plays Belize as a rather flamboyant queen - campy in the extreme, and I mean that as a compliment. The three roles I have seen him play have been very different, and yet he truly inhabited each character. He commands the stage in any venue. I truly could not take my eyes off of him this entire play. Just as one example from the second part, Louis is droning on and on and on about political theory and democracy (and displaying casual racism) while poor Belize can’t get a word in to save his life. Joslen doesn’t speak for several minutes of monologue, and yet, he says it all. The facial expressions, the body language, the little movements - I couldn’t look away. It was that good.

 Tevin Joslen as Belize

Likewise, in several scenes with the dying Roy Cohn, their chemistry was fantastic. Sivesind has great range too, and the two of them made the moments where the deeply racist Cohn openly antagonizes Belize, in no small part because of his helplessness and dependence on someone he despises some of the best parts of the play. 

  Brian Sivesind as Roy Cohn and Tevin Joslen as Belize

Women are not the focus of this play, but the female roles are interesting. I haven’t seen Ellie Sivesind act that much these days; perhaps she is focusing more on the operations side of the theater (and presumably in keeping her husband Brian in line…), but I do enjoy it when she does. She has mostly played a particular type lately, the slightly naive, innocent woman. (Such as Desdemona, or Miranda.) I suspect one of the reasons for this is that she is genuinely good at the type. She has this naturally innocent and pure look about her, and an ease to the accompanying gestures. So, needless to say, she was thoroughly convincing as a Mormon wife. And yet also as a woman who deeply needs love and sex and intimacy, the lack of which is driving her literally insane. As a strongly heterosexual male, it made total sense that the only possible way that Joe could keep his hands off her was that he is gay. In one of her valium dreams, this line stood out:

“I don't understand why I'm not dead. When your heart breaks, you should die. But there's still the rest of you. There's your breasts and your genitals... They're amazingly stupid, like babies or faithful dogs. They don't get it, they just want him. Want him.”

Just a quick mention of some of the other actors. Kara Coughenour is a college student, and covered a few parts, from Prior’s nurse on down. Sammy Noriega played the smarmy travel agent that lives in Harper’s head - and played a violin as badly as I act. Jan Hefner played Joe’s uptight and yet reckless mother. April Toelle covered the difficult part of the angel. Julia Stansbury took a malevolent turn as the ghost of Ethel Rosenburg. TES regular Carlos Vera played several characters, from Cohn’s doctor to a random guy Louis picks up. Vera always seems to have just a slight edge of menace to whatever parts he plays. Generally solid work from the bit parts in limited action.

 Jan Hefner as Joe's mother and Ellie Sivesind as Harper

I should note the important scenes involving Joe’s mother. In one sense, she is a foil to Louis in that she ends up spending the night at the hospital with Prior - something she never expected to do. It appears that she grows as a result, and in that sense serves as a possible way forward for the decent religious people of America. Whether or not she changes her political affiliation or not, she ends up learning empathy anyway, and offers hope for human decency.

I won’t profess to understand all of the philosophical ideas in the play. The significance of the supernatural elements were kind of weird, felt disjointed, and left an unclear impression on me. The angel was Kushner’s first idea when he conceived Angels In America, but I am not convinced it was the best.

However, there are a few things which stood out that I think are well worth considering.

The first is the idea of a “theory.” The second play opens with an old Bolshevik pontificating on the need for a theory to guide governance and provide a vision for the future. He notes that Consumer Corporate Capitalism isn’t much of a theory, and offers little beyond greed as a principle. He is right about this. But he is also unwilling to reject Communism as a theory even though he knows it has failed.

Where this gets interesting is in the epilogue, where Louis and Joe’s mom, and (if I recall correctly), Belize and Prior are talking about politics. There is a line there about both theory and experience needing to work together. On the one hand, we humans have a drive to create the order of a theory to explain our experience. But we cannot let the theory become our god. Experience must alter theory, and theory needs to be in communication with experience. Both together are necessary.

I think this is a truth that is forgotten a lot these days. One of the problems the Right has right now is that it has allowed Theory to rule unopposed. Specifically, economic theories like supply-side economics and social theories like Ayn Rand’s objectivism (which gets a mention in the play.) The theories have become disconnected from reality, from experience. They are believed as a religious belief is often cherished - true in the teeth of the evidence. The actual effects on real humans be damned - the theory is what counts. This is, of course, no different from the Communist experience. The same old 5-year plans, the same quotes from Marx and Engels, and any experience which contradicts the dogma is rigorously suppressed. As Solzhenitsyn pointed out, there are many reasons people kill dozens, but to kill millions, ideology is necessary. And that goes for both left and right.

On a related note, one of the best lines in the play comes from Belize. Belize isn’t a clown, but he does play the role that the clown often plays in Shakespeare: the one self-aware and rapier sharp character. Belize knows the score, and his takedowns of the various characters are often funny, and always on point. Speaking to Louis, who has again gone off into self-absorbed theorizing to avoid his own guilt, he says:

“You know what your problem is, Louis? Your problem is that you are so full of piping hot crap that the mention of your name draws flies.”

Just a great line. Louis in this respect reminds me so much of what white Evangelicalism is ike these days. They will not stop talking and lecturing and just shut up long enough to listen to anyone but themselves. They are full of piping hot crap about so many things, but don’t even realize it.

However, Louis occasionally says something that has an element of truth. Like this line:

“There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there's only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.”

I have read this over a number of times since seeing the play, and keep thinking about it. On the one hand, it is baloney: we do have a spiritual and racial past. But we don’t really acknowledge it, because our racial past is that of vicious racism, slavery, genocide, and segregation that still underlie a lot of our politics; and our spiritual past is in significant part a story of Puritan witch hunts, weird new religions in the 19th Century (such as the Mormonism that is central to this play), and an obsession with sexuality and gender.

On the other hand, though, Louis is right. To a sobering degree, religion in America is mostly a veneer over politics. And likewise, we don’t really have a history of being “American” that stretches back to the dawn of historical memory, so we have substituted a shifting idea of who is legitimately “American” (meaning white enough.)

I have to mention another great line, which was both hilarious - and revealing.

Harper: I'm a Mormon.
Prior: I'm a homosexual.
Harper: Oh. In my church we don't believe in homosexuals.
Prior: In my church we don't believe in Mormons.

In some ways, this explains a lot. In my former theological tradition (Evangelicalism), we didn’t truly believe in homosexuals. They didn’t really exist. What did exist were people so unfathomably evil that they deliberately chose to commit the one sin that actually mattered. But of course, denial never changes reality, and it turns out that sexual orientation does exist - and Mormons too.

I have been looking back on the 80s and the AIDS crisis and I have come to the belief that AIDS did more than anything to bring sexuality out of the cultural closet and out in the open, where it had to be actually addressed, rather than ignored. I do not wish to in any way diminish the tragedy of all the lives lost, but I do think that those deaths had an effect. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to think that one didn’t know any gay people - they were literally dying in plain view. At that point, it was necessary to actually acknowledge sexual minorities, and once you start doing that, the path to change has been paved.

I’ll end with a line from Prior that sums things up quite well:

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

Despite its length and occasional lack of focus, Angels In America was well worth seeing, and does indeed seem relevant to our own times too.


Just a bit on Roy Cohn: I don’t believe in confusing attorneys with their clients - as a general rule. After all, many fine men and women I know work in criminal defense, a job which is crucial to the functioning of our justice system. One of the worst developments in public discourse in the last few years has been to tar defense attorneys because of who they defended. (This has mostly come from the Right, which is disturbing to me, as I grew up in an era when distrust of prosecutorial power was actually a conservative belief.)

That said, there are exceptions, and I do think it is telling that Roy Cohn was so eager to work with McCarthy. Other famous clients include a plethora of mob figures, George Steinbrenner, and...wait for it…

Donald Trump.

It is no stretch to say that Cohn’s unethical and immoral approach wherein law becomes about power, not justice, was a huge influence on who Trump would become.

Remember that case when Trump got sued by the Justice Department for systematic racial discrimination? His lawyer: Roy Cohn. The two would be close until Cohn’s death, and it is startling how much of Cohn’s approach to business and the legal system would be adopted by Trump. Paul Manafort started off with Cohn before becoming Trump’s guy. Even some of Trump’s famous phrases were stolen from Cohn. Trump testified at Cohn’s disbarment proceeding. I’m not going to get into all of it here, but Vanity Fair did a great article on the connections that is worth a read.

Oh, and did I mention Cohn was a John Bircher?


Some of my own history with AIDS and HIV:

I grew up in Los Angeles, and was old enough to understand what was happening when AIDS first hit the news in a big way. My parents (fortunately) were open about sex and politics, and I wasn’t kept sheltered from reality, as so many of my homeschooled peers were and are. I vaguely remember some extended news story on the mechanics of HIV sometime in the mid 80s, and then read some scientific stuff in one of the books I have somewhere. (It was an annual collection of articles on cutting edge science appended to a science encyclopedia. This being the 80s, that meant superconductors, fullerenes, and other “cutting edge” stuff of the time. I LOVED it.)

On a more personal basis, by the time I was mid-teens, I was at least acquainted with two people who died of AIDS. One was the brother of some close family friends. He had been the victim of clergy sexual abuse as a child, and struck me as being a gentle, wounded soul. The other was the older brother of a young woman from youth group, and it was kind of a scandal at the time, if I recall. (He was closeted - or at least his sexuality was kept hidden by his family.)

And then, in one of the biggest bombshells ever, Magic Johnson announced he had HIV. It is hard to overstate just what a cultural moment this was. I have always been a Lakers fan, from the Showtime era on. Heck, I got to play as part of a violin ensemble for Kareem’s retirement party back in the day. (He rocked the purple suit.) So for Magic, of all people, to get what was then considered a death sentence was devastating.

There were other interesting moments. Kimberly Bergalis died of AIDS, which she contracted from her dentist through an accidental blood contamination. Arthur Ashe died of AIDS. And he most likely was infected by a blood transfusion. It wasn’t until later that it came out that Isaac Asimov also died of AIDS - likewise contracted from blood during a surgery. Asimov’s family hushed it up at the time.

It is difficult to explain to people who didn’t live through the 1980s exactly what it was like. For several years, HIV was mysterious, and the method of transmission not clear. It may seem bizarre now, but at the time, there was a genuine fear that it could be spread by casual contact. As a result, HIV positive people were treated as lepers. Children with HIV were excluded from schools, people saw all gays as potentially infected, further marginalizing them.

Even my own parents got this tape series by some conspiracy-mongering “doctor” claiming AIDS was spread by mosquitoes (it isn’t) and advocating complete quarantine of all potential HIV positive people. (Round up the gays, yo…)

Eventually, science got a grip on the facts, and reason prevailed in medical circles, at least. My wife routinely cares for HIV positive patients in her line of work. In general, she and her colleagues practice proper procedure with all patients to avoid bloodborne transmission of all sorts. Realistically, a patient with MRSA or TB requires greater care to prevent transmission.

But it was different back then.

It is also difficult to explain to those who didn’t live through it what it was like when thousands of people were dying. HIV has become more of a chronic, manageable illness these days - which is a huge improvement. Magic is still with us, as are many others.

As a classical violinist, I think this hit home more to me than most. Whatever genetic components go into sexual orientation also seem to be associated with an artistic temperament. LGBTQ people are widespread in the arts, which means I have known them as long as I have been in music, involved with musical theater, and interested in theater in general. As a teen, it was sobering to see people I had met or worked with decline and die seemingly overnight, and it was sickening to know that many more were at risk. There were so many empty chairs, so to speak.

I want to end, though, with a very positive experience. There was a man at the church we attended in LA during my early teens, before we moved away. He had a very unique ministry, and the evening in which he talked about it to our youth group has inspired - and haunted - me ever since.

You see, he took in gay men who were dying of AIDS, usually abandoned and alone, and cared for them as they journeyed to the hereafter. His job wasn’t to preach at them, to condemn them, to “fix” them. He took them in and loved them, cared for them, kept them from being alone as they died painfully from a gruesome disease. And remember, this was back when many feared catching AIDS from casual contact, and treated the HIV positive as pariahs. And yet he did this. He was the hands and feet of Jesus to the ill and dying. (To use the Evangelical cliche…) I can think of few people I respect more or who more unequivocally embodied what it means to follow Christ. Unsurprisingly, he had a certain sadness about him - I think watching people die does that to one.

This was in stark contrast to the response of most of Evangelicalism at the time, which was full of gloating that the gays were finally getting their just punishment. (Of course, never mind all the “innocent” people who died - just collateral damage…) The longer I live, the more embarrassed I am about my faith’s behavior during this period - and continuing to today. Like Louis, they continue to blither on about stuff they don’t really understand but have strong opinions about - and then wonder why they are losing young people rapidly.

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