Entertaining Angels

illustration by Brianna AshbyThere’s an old biblical mandate—“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it”—that’s had the faithful chattering for millennia. Across pulpits and potlucks, in prayers and prophecies, these people thank God for the stranger who mysteriously disappeared after pulling their children out of the path of a moving car, for the comforting presence at the foot of the bed, for the almost-physical peace that flooded them during a long illness.

They say, “Thank you for visiting us in our time of need.”

And they miss the point entirely.

But Angels in America, the Mike Nichols-directed adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play of the same name, plumbs these old words’ poignant depths. It may seem strange to speak of biblical mandates and angels in the context of this story: one of a splintering nation, gay sex, the AIDS epidemic, addiction, abuse of power, and betrayal. Still, Angels in America proves that tenderness, and truth, are closeted alongside paradoxes.

It’s 1985. Ronald Reagan is the president. In Manhattan, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) tells his lover of four and a half years, Louis (Ben Shenkman), that he’s dying. Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the powerful—and closeted—right-wing fixer, finds out he’s in the advanced stages of AIDS. Cohn’s errand boy, Republican attorney Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), seesaws between his political ambition and his wife Harper’s (Mary-Louise Parker) agoraphobia, not to mention his Mormon beliefs and his own hidden homosexuality.

Somewhere above San Francisco, the angels mourn God’s absence.

As the world breaks, an angel visits Prior in visions of glory, telling him he’s been chosen as the prophet of the modern age. It’s not hard to see why. Between the drug-and power-addled, he’s the only character in Angels who has made peace with himself, so, like the virgin of old, he’s got something to deliver: authenticity, or at the very least unapologetic self-acceptance.

In a tale of underground identities, Prior’s act is revolutionary. Almost every character in Angels in America makes a plan with their ego, their religious convictions, or with one another, to hide their true natures. Louis insists that he loves Prior, but abandons him as AIDS begins its ravage; Roy rejects his own diagnosis, claiming that gay men have no political clout; in denial over the reason behind her sexless marriage, Harper pops Valium and hallucinates, and Joe, her husband, takes a walk in Central Park, his self-deluding cover for watching the gay sex that takes place after night falls.

Prior may be dying of AIDS, but after the angel visits, the disease, too, takes on a new identity: Prior’s the prophet, AIDS the proverbial rags and sores integral to this role. As the illness lays waste to his body, Prior is stripped down to his essence— “I’m not a prophet. I’m a sick, lonely man”—and, ornaments shed, he can only offer himself, which is in fact the crucial message.

Prior isn’t the only messenger in Angels. Taking cues from Kushner’s play, the series employs a few actors in more than one role. This tightens the narrative’s ambitious sprawl, planting well-known faces in pivotal places. For instance, Emma Thompson —the angel, all glory be— is also a no-nonsense nurse who looks after Prior, and a homeless crone slurping soup in the Bronx. Meryl Streep threads through the story, at turns an ancient rabbi philosophizing about the arrival of immigrants to the U.S., at others the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg come to haunt Roy Cohn in his desperate last days, and at even others the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, level-headed Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother, who comes all the way from Salt Lake City to save her fallen son and look after her delusional daughter-in-law. Finally, Jeffrey Wright is Belize, a former drag queen cum nurse who, against his better judgment, cares for Roy Cohn, while also playing Mr. Lies, a dapper travel agent who happens to be a figment of Harper’s Valium-flavored imagination.

These doubles do more than solidify the story; they tell us that visiting angels aren’t always dressed in robes of light, that a dying gay man can have sex with an eight-pussied, double-winged woman, that the message you’ve begged of heaven might come from an unlikely place, that what you do to take care of yourself might be what’s killing you, slowly, one pill at at time, and the thing you thought would kill you might save you, feverish swallow after feverish swallow.

Angels in America belongs in a psalter—not because of its spiritual rambling, its “out of the depths I cry to Thee,” but because of its poetry. This is an elegy masquerading as prime-time television; you hear rhymes in the rhythm of its dialogue, and you see drama in its characters’ performances. Joe and Harper’s confrontations suggest high theatre: they deliver rather than speak their lines, not so much to one another as at some undefined audience. Their sparse Brooklyn apartment is the cardboard set Harper steps in and out of during her pharmaceutical voyages, and the backdrop to their heartbreaking dialogue. They speak more poetry to one another than the rest of the characters combined. That the most beautiful language should be between two characters who couldn’t be further apart burns more than Joe leaning in to his wife for a “buddy kiss.”

Kushner must take credit for the writing (he adapted his own play for the screen) but we must thank Nichols for the angels he coaxed and the demons he exorcised from the cast.

“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion once wrote, and her prophetic message easily extends to the people we are, whether we’d admit (to) them or not. We’ve got to mother our demons: rock them to sleep, hold their hands across streets, love them when they wake you in the night. If we neglect them—if we forget their names—they’ll put on costumes and come back to haunt us. Nichols had a gift for seeing this mutability in the actors he worked with, encouraging some of the best performances of their careers (think: Dustin Hoffman or Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Richard Burton said of him, “He conspires with you to get your best.”

Which, in Angels, can mean the worst. Pacino’s Roy Cohn, perhaps the most believable character (in fact, he’s modeled on real life) is also the most despicable. Still, we’re drawn to his bedside to watch and to hold his hand as his childish defense mechanisms, his mind, and his body all fail him. Golden boy Patrick Wilson’s Joe Pitt attracts us with his social innocence and reviles us with his effortless betrayals. Louis, eaten up with guilt, is about as easy to watch as a pride of lions tearing its lunch to pieces. His self-delusion rivals Harper’s drug-dreams.

Angels bring heaven to earth but they also elevate the earthy, taking us by the hand and leading us into our enemies’ sickrooms, sitting us down next to foreigners’ fires, so that we’ll see beauty in all things, a dual purpose that Emma Thompson’s angel, nurse, and homeless woman peel back the veil to reveal. Less symbolic, but no less shattering, Jeffrey Wright transports us into no man’s land: unflappable, impossibly cool Belize throws a scarf over his shoulder, rubs soothing cream on Prior’s ravaged skin, rips into Louis, and happens to be the night-nurse when Roy Cohn ends up in the hospital. Their conversation— Cohn’s bigoted comments and self-importance, and Belize’s no-nonsense refusal to take the bait — entertains as much as it stings. “Aren’t nurses supposed to wear white?” Cohn barks at the black, and sequined, Belize.

Belize’s double Mr. Lies, winging through Antarctica with Harper in a hallucination, may be less mouthy but he’s no less sympathetic. He brims with slogans, claims, and reassurances: Harper is dubious, but she’s also completely under his (the drugs’) spell. It’s a classic addict’s delusion, that she’s in control; still, her captor is compassionate. “If the duck was a song bird,” Mr. Lies says, “it would sound like [the oboe]: nasal, desolate, the sound of migratory things.” Like Belize, who knows Cohn’s got few cards to play and none that will beat death, Mr. Lies knows Harper’s weaknesses. But neither takes advantage of their power.

Like its players, Angels is a drama wearing funny clothes, a political piece whose politics fail it, a religious meditation that does away with God. Beneath every costume, its essence hums, true to beauty, true to discovery, true to truth. It’s a visiting stranger, searching for a hearth. One must only have enough faith to see the beauty beneath the rags.

There’s a moment, soon after Prior has met the angel, when he and Belize attend a funeral for one of their friends, a renowned drag queen. Brimming with color, beauty, and diversity,the church sways in song. Sequins and feathers, as ubiquitous as tears, stream into aisles. It’s a performance, a ritual, the opposite of a funeral. Still, in its defiant joy, in this church crowded with the unchurched, the scene is the most religious thing you’ll see in a series full of angels and flaming scrolls.

It’s doubt in drag.


Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.