The problem with HBO's Angels in America.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 12 2003 5:46 PM

The Lector Effect

HBO's new Angels in America gets Kushner wrong.

Angels: Not the same on-screen
Angels: Not the same on-screen

A lector—besides being a person who reads aloud scriptural passages during a liturgical service—is also a person who explains the subtext of a joke or parable, thus ruining it for everyone. From Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

MARTHA (Braying)

I DON'T BRAY!

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I was thinking about this idea as I watched the opening scene of Mike Nichols' HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. A rabbi, played in the movie by Meryl Streep and, on Broadway, by Kathleen Chalfant, presides over a funeral.

Good morning. I am Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz of the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews. We are here this morning to pay respects at the passing of Sarah Ironson. Devoted wife of, uh, [unfolds paper] Benjamin Ironson. Also deceased. Loving and caring mother of her sons, Maurice, Abraham, and Samuel, and her daughters, Esther and Rachel. Beloved grandmother of Max, Mark, Louis, Angela, Doris, Luke, and Eric. Eric? This is a Jewish name?

Chalfant delivered her lines in front of the curtain, addressing the audience in lieu of a congregation. The implications of the staging were heady. This was a play about AIDS, after all, premiering in 1993 in New York, before protease inhibitors had radically altered the shape of the epidemic. Death and AIDS were virtually synonymous then, funerals more common gatherings than evenings at the theater. Chalfant's intonation made the second "Eric?" the joke while the rabbi's lectorism "This is a Jewish name?" went half-heard beneath the audience's relieved laughter. This may have been a play about AIDS, but it was going to be funny. It was going to be an evening at the theater, lightened by the familiar Jewish shtick of making jokes in the face of death.

But on-screen, the joke misses because Streep addresses a genuine crowd of mourners. When her voice rises on the second "Eric?" it feels like she's talking to herself rather than the people before her; it's only after "This is a Jewish name?" that the congregants laugh obligatorily, the camera panning their faces as if to make sure we know the sound doesn't emanate from a laugh track. But the audience at home doesn't laugh. It's not that the joke isn't funny, but that the insularity of the film steals its outward aspect. The joke gets stuck inside the world of the story, and any opportunity for viewers to connect with it is overshadowed by the camera's insistence on its humor.

The TV Angels is uphill from there, but it's a long slow climb. What works best here is what worked best onstage—Kushner's writing—but it has to fight against Nichols' attempts to add flesh to the playwright's atmospheric prose. Part of the difficulty, of course, is the isolating effect of the camera, which segregates the players from one another. The man who rendered Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the screen by accommodating his four players in a series of judiciously edited wide shots seems, here, less confident of his actors. He sticks a camera up against every face and strobes back and forth among them, or glances nervously around his set. Indeed, Kushner's most famous monologue—Roy Cohn's "I wish I was an octopus" speech—is nearly destroyed by Nichols' jumpy camera, which leaps around the room like a cat trying to catch a grasshopper: below Cohn's desk, over his shoulder, on his face, his hands, his phone, his walls. This kind of thing makes it that much harder for the actors to do their jobs, and even such talents as Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep aren't quite able to rise to the challenge. The former is miscast as the butch Long Island nurse Emily and spends all her energy getting the accent right, while the latter simply seems adrift as Hannah, the Utah-based Mormon mother of closeted counselor Joe Pitt.

But the problem isn't just the camerawork: It's Nichols' feeling for Kushner's language itself. Kushner's writing, especially the polemical ranting of his monologues, owes its effect at least as much to rhythm as it does to syntax, and Nichols' sense of Kushner's rhythm is off here, as is his sense of Kushner's juxtapositions. As in his adaptation of The Birdcage, Nichols sees the classic camp trope of high set against low in an almost anthropological way, of male where female should be, ugly passed off as beautiful. He seems to find this profound rather than funny; and the fact that it is (or was) profound ceases to matter if it's not also funny. Nichols is Kushner's—or gay culture's—lector here, and joke after joke is explained away by his explicative direction.

Ultimately, though, the real problem is that Angels is and remains a play, not a movie. It is deliberately, powerfully anachronistic in its approach to narrative, updating—one wants to say outing—the mid-century work of Williams and Albee. Though Nichols labors doggedly at filling in the spaces even the most lavish theatrical productions leave blank, his sets come across as cluttered, unnuanced, unnecessary; his frequent angel-eye perspectives seem thrown in just, you know, because. In particular, the addition of New York City vistas, the panoramas and facades left out of the play's backdrops, seem shuffled in from a mismatched deck. That's because Angels, even more than most plays, is steeped in conversation, soliloquy, the linguistic pursuit of ideas. Its characters interact with each other, not their environment, because (as the subtitle reminds us) the play is a fantasia: There is something internal and not quite real about it. Onstage, the visions of Kushner's PWA "prophet," Prior Walter, exist within a devolving continuum of what we think of as reality, a dislocation achieved more than anything else by the play's language, which moves from the quotidian to the metaphysical in ever-accelerating cadences. But on-screen they just look fake. A vision is already a slightly kitschy way of manifesting the subconscious (which Kushner acknowledges in his cartoonish sketches of two of Prior's ancestral visitors), yet Nichols hammers the comedy to death. Among other things, each time the specters appear or disappear, a tinkle chimes that reminds me of the transporter sound from Star Trek. And then sometimes Nichols just gets it wrong. Decking Kushner himself in beard and payes at a cemetery was a deconstructionist joke no one should have indulged, as is, on another level, the portentous visual parallel made of Prior and Joe's wife Harper's downing pills (AIDS meds for him, Valium for her) with identical glasses. And when, finally, Lewis moves out of the apartment he shares with Prior, he packs his stuff into a Checker cab. But the Checkers were gone by 1985: The taxis, like the police department's cruisers, were almost all Crown Victorias, the Checker already a nostalgic fantasy of a New York that existed only in the movies.

Perhaps, finally, nostalgia is Nichols' greatest obstacle. But it would be wrong to attribute all the nostalgia to Nichols. For W.'s America of 2003 isn't Clinton's America of 1993, when the play premiered; which itself wasn't the America of 1991 and 1992 when the play was being written and work-shopped, and George H.W. Bush was fighting for re-election; and then again not the America of 1985 that the play is set in, when Ronald Reagan had just won a second term. Or at least it isn't the same America for gay people. AIDS changed gay men's relationship to the national consciousness in a way that it hasn't for the other populations it's affected, both here and abroad. History has been accelerated for us during the past two decades. Civil rights battles that might have taken generations took only a few years, sometimes a few months; and though those battles are far from over, it's safe to say that gay men occupy a demonstrably different and more secure position in America now than we did then. When Joe says to Louis, "Look, I want to touch you. Can I just touch you here?" he means both "here" on the cheek and also "here" in Central Park—in public. For the thousandth time, a gay man was coming out to America, and it seemed perhaps that this time it took. We are, today, safer, more visible, more capable of influencing the things said about us on a national level—but we are not, as was, I think, Kushner's hope (not to mention his audience's), capable of influencing the things America said about itself. Gay men became more American; Americans did not become more gay. Whether you regard capitalism as the thing that will save the world or the thing that will destroy it, the marketplace has proven capable of assimilating gay male notions of masquerade, subterfuge, and subversion without itself being subverted by them. By which I mean that there was a George Bush as president when Kushner first wrote Angels, and there is a George Bush as president now. By which I mean that perhaps it isn't the movie that doesn't do the play justice, it's the times. By which I mean, finally, that as soon as I finished watching Angels, the only thing I could think of doing was watching it again because I wanted it to have another chance.

Dale Peck's most recent books are What We Lost: Based on a True Story and Hatchet Jobs, forthcoming in May 2004.