Heaven on Earth

  • Ghosts are what history sends to remind the living that it is not done with us. This fall the shades of the 1980s have been lurking in the cobwebbed corners of America's pop culture: Michael Jackson, staring from his mug shot like a revenant; Ronald Reagan, whose culture wars CBS exhumed with its planned, then canceled mini-series. But these were only minor hauntings compared with what will happen on Sunday, as Angels in America (HBO, Dec. 7 and 14, 8 p.m. E.T.) sends the '80s crashing into American homes with a fanfare of hosannas and portents of pestilence and apocalypse.

    Set mostly in 1985 and 1986 and adapted by Tony Kushner from his pair of Tony-and Pulitzer-prizewinning plays, Angels is equal parts domestic drama, agitprop and Scripture. It follows two New York City couples: Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), who is sick with AIDS, and his lover Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), who abandons Prior, unable to cope with his illness; and Joe and Harper Pitt (Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker), a closeted gay Mormon lawyer and his disturbed, pill-popping wife. Around them orbit historical and mythological figures: Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the diabolical former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy who is gay, closeted and stricken with AIDS; the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep), whom Cohn, by pulling strings, got executed for treason; and an angel (Emma Thompson)--the spiritual avatar of America. When she smashes through the ceiling of Prior's apartment to draft him as an unwilling prophet, all hell breaks loose — or, really, terrifyingly, all heaven does.

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    If the '80s of Angels seem a lot like today — ideological warfare, sexual politics, a sense of the end times — it's no surprise to Kushner. "We have this idea that we cycle through political moments very rapidly," says Kushner. "But they last a long time. [Angels] was written about something that was alive and kicking, the Reagan counterrevolution to the cultural revolution of the '60s. We're still living in the late '80s."

    Bringing his work to TV was no comedown for the playwright, who is unapologetically "addicted to television," including HBO'S The Wire , The Honeymooners and "Law & Order: Sexual Filth" (his nickname for Special Victims Unit ). In a sense, Angels was TV waiting to be made, an HBO drama before HBO dramas as we know them existed. Director Mike Nichols ( The Graduate , Wit ) notes that the plays often cut between split-stage scenes, a "very filmic" technique. "So much of it concerned dreams and magic," Nichols adds, "and those two things are very much in the realm of movies."

    Nichols, Kushner and HBO all call Angels a movie (it will debut in two parts as it did onstage but will be rerun in one-hour episodes and in one six-hour shebang), but its high-literary and low — pop culture sensibility — it references Hegel and The Wizard of Oz — best recall Dennis Potter's British mini-series. (The Singing Detective's Michael Gambon even shows up as, of course, a ghost.) And it ranks in TV history with Potter's masterworks. The key to Angels is that it is realistic and fantastic at once — a miraculous event in mundane circumstances, like a biblical visitation — and Nichols' movie-series is appropriately epic and gritty. He can as capably bathe a scene in heavenly light as in HIV-tainted blood.

    It's impossible to overlook Angels' star power (Pacino and Streep's first onscreen pairing has been promoted like Godzilla vs. King Kong), and the celebrities do not disappoint. In multiple roles, Streep morphs effortlessly from ancient Orthodox rabbi to radical Jewish mom Rosenberg to Joe Pitt's mother Hannah. Only occasionally does Pacino slip into his scenery-chewing hooah mode with the eloquently cynical Cohn. And Thompson's angel is no cherub but a winged Old Testament monster of sexual heat and arrogance who proclaims, "My wrath is as fearsome as my countenance is splendid!"

    Really, though, Angels belongs to its less well-known stars. Kirk (see sidebar) is heartbreaking but fierce as he rages against the dying of the light, the fecklessness of his lover and the implacability of the angel's demands. And Jeffrey Wright — re-creating his Tony-winning roles as Belize, a Hispanic African-American transvestite, and Mr. Lies, a phantasm of Harper's drug reveries — is a model of nuance in parts that could have been mere sounding boards for Angels' agonized white folks.

    Ironically, Angels managed to stay off the culture warriors' radar, even though, unlike The Reagans, it had been publicly performed and published. It is unabashedly progressive (the kind of progressive that considers even "liberal" an insult), it takes sides, and it names names. Reagan comes in for frequent insults, and when Kushner has a corrupt, disease-ravaged Cohn say, "If you want to look at the heart of modern conservatism, you look at me," he is not trying to be fair and balanced. Kushner called the stage version of Angels "a gay fantasia on national themes," and its ACT UP — era gay militancy (tolerance is nice, but equal treatment is a must) goes far beyond the multiculti makeovers of Queer Eye .

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