Magazine article The New Yorker

America, Lost and Found on Television

Magazine article The New Yorker

America, Lost and Found on Television

Article excerpt

There is wide agreement, and no compelling counterargument, that Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" is the most important play of the last decade. A fearless, ambitious work, it took in, and took on, the Reagan years (it is set in 1985 and 1986), American history, the aids plague, sexuality, love, death, religion, and the meaning of community. In its rigor, it made no distinction between the personal and the political, but it was open-minded and openhearted, epic not just in its intent but in its effect on audiences--people were swept in, swept away, and changed by it, their armor cracked. Those who weren't so affected still more than likely walked away feeling that the chord Kushner had struck, consisting of notes of anger, instruction, intelligence, mysticism, and, not least, humor, would linger in their heads for a long time. Although it has been ten years since "Angels" was produced in New York, Kushner's play hasn't become dated; the offstage, real-life world has turned many times since 1993, but there are enough rough equivalents to the issues the play raises that its ironies still seem sharp and its over-all power--its harshness, its hard-won optimism--is undiminished.

"Angels" has now been made into an HBO film, and at least one of the challenges of transferring Kushner's work from the stage to the screen is obvious: the two plays that make up "Angels"--"Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika"--total more than six hours. (In theatres, they are performed on separate nights and also sometimes together, as a oneday marathon, with a meal break in between.) In the mid-nineties, Robert Altman planned to direct a film version; he and Kushner attempted to boil the play down to two or three hours. Then another director got involved and Kushner re-expanded the screenplay. Ultimately, Mike Nichols signed on as director and executive producer (his co-executive producer, Cary Brokaw, teamed with him on the HBO version of Margaret Edson's play "Wit," two years ago), and the result is a six-hour TV movie--albeit a TV movie with a feature-film budget of sixty million dollars. ("Millennium Approaches" will air on Sunday, December 7th, and "Perestroika" the following Sunday, and HBO will repeat both parts frequently in subsequent weeks.) Kushner has cut little from the original script and has maintained the work's general shape, although the eight acts, along with an epilogue at the end of "Perestroika," have been configured into six "chapters," and the play's subtitle, "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," has been eliminated.

Aside from length, the greatest difficulty in adapting "Angels in America" for the screen--the small screen, at that--is capturing its theatricality. In the theatre, there are times when two scenes are played simultaneously, and when a character from one scene walks into another on the other side of the stage. This presents Nichols with a kind of physics problem; what was represented in space now has to be represented in time, with one scene following another. Nichols wisely avoids using a split screen; what he does is move back and forth between scenes, and to a great extent this technique works, although occasionally the cuts are so quick that you're forced to pay almost too much attention to the TV screen, in a way that is itself a distraction--you're too aware of trying to keep track of who's where, who's talking to whom, and how the scenes are connected. Anyone who makes the effort to transfer a play to TV runs the risk of focussing excessively on plot and dialogue and of failing to catch the elusive nonverbal elements in his butterfly net. (This is what happened with the TV version of "Wit," for which Nichols and Emma Thompson, who starred, wrote the screenplay. Most of the deliberately self-conscious stage devices, which were integral to the play, and necessary to give full dimension to the main character, were gone, and the TV version became largely a story about an interesting woman dying of cancer. …

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