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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

Angels in America lands on the small screen

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Something pretty rare takes place on television this weekend when a landmark American play makes it to the small screen, thanks to HBO's adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

This two-part 'morality play' about life, death, survival and faith, arrived on Broadway ten years ago (its premiere productions took place in Los Angeles and London two years prior) where it won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," the almost-eight-hour play was produced in two parts, opening in the spring and fall of 1993. And though the story is set during the Reagan years of the 1980s, it seems even more timely and relevant today than it did when it opened.

The recent controversy over the election of an openly gay man as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire continues to be argued in churches across the country. That and the recent Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage have brought churches out into the political arena even more, asking their congregants to sign petitions for and against the "Defense of Marriage Act" legislation. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (Oct. 19), Andrew Sullivan wrote of a gay couple who were told they could no longer sing in the choir at St. Benedict's Church in the Bronx after it was learned they'd recently gotten a civil marriage license in Canada. World AIDS Day took place this week with the announcement that there are more than 40 million people around the world with the AIDS virus. Three million have died from AIDS-related illnesses this year alone.

And so in the midst of all this, Angels is back, this time in a faithful screen adaptation directed by Mike Nichols and featuring an all-star cast (including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson). The play is a sprawling epic, centering on the politics of the AIDS-era in the 1980s, but it is also a play about faith and man's search -- and yearning -- for God. The two-part, seven-and-a-half hour play will be seen in its entirety on HBO, perhaps the only way Kushner's ambitious work could be seen on the screen the way he wrote it.

I have not yet seen this new adaptation so I can only write what I remember of the original play. The fact that a play such as this was occurring on Broadway at a time I was tending to a friend in New York going through the final stages of AIDS obviously was of interest to me. A theme echoed in the play was around the country's refusal to acknowledge the disease and especially about the government's refusal to act quickly. President Reagan refused to even utter the word "AIDS" for two years.

One of the plot lines concerns Roy Cohn (who was a personal friend of the Reagans), a closeted gay man who, because of his political influence, was able to get himself into an experimental drug program during the early days of AZT. Al Pacino plays Cohn in the HBO production.

In another plot, we see how AIDS affects a relationship as Prior (Justin Kirk), a gay man in New York, learns he has Kaposi's Sarcoma, one of the first diseases to hit AIDS victims. The third plot revolves around Joe and Harper (Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker), a married Mormon couple. Joe is a law clerk working for Roy Cohn and is struggling with his own sexuality and faith. Meryl Streep portrays Joe's mother and Emma Thompson is the "Angel" of the title.

And it is these characters that make this play a great one. Though the head-in-the-sand politics of the time is an unmistakable theme throughout, the stories of these people make Kushner's play one that will be remembered years from now. And through these characters, he successfully documents a place and time in our country's history.

As Prior, living with AIDS five years later, says at play's end, "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."

Most screen adaptations of plays have not translated well. The exceptions are films like Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.Angels in America could very well be another exception.

Angels in America airs in two parts on HBO. Part I, "Millennium Approaches," will be shown at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, and Part II, "Perestroika," at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14.

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