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God has abandoned Heaven. It's 1985: the Reagans are in the White House and Death swings the scythe of AIDS. In Manhattan, Prior Walter tells Lou, his lover of four years, he's ill; Lou bolts. As disease and loneliness ravage Prior, guilt invades Lou. Joe Pitt, an attorney who is Mormon and Republican, is pushed by right-wing fixer Roy Cohn toward a job at the Justice Department. Both Pitt and Cohn are in the closet: Pitt out of shame and religious turmoil, Cohn to preserve his power and access. Pitt's wife Harper is strung out on Valium, aching to escape a sexless marriage. An angel invites Prior to be a prophet in death. Pitt's mother and Belize, a close friend, help Prior choose. Written by
If you meet some requirements, you may find it the most moving thing you ever saw
It seems to me that to be able to experience the full depth of this production, you need to meet a few requirements. First, you need to know that this is a PLAY. Like in any play, texts are delivered that you will not easily hear in everyday life (nobody makes up 'Antebellum Insufficiently Developed Sexorgans' as an alternative interpretation of AIDS during a split second in mid-conversation). Shakespeare isn't realistic in that way, Oscar Wilde isn't, Ibsen isn't, and nor is Tony Kushner. All of them are however extremely realistic in that they highlight essential aspects of the human condition in ways no other medium can achieve. Second, you need an ability to look beyond the surface. Reading reviews of AinA I'm stunned at how simplistically literal some people take it (maybe that explains why you've got Bush for president over there?). This play isn't about gays, it isn't about AIDS, it isn't about Jews and it isn't about Mormons. Its theme is the necessity for people to change, the scariness of change, while most of us would prefer to just let things stay as they are. That's what Louis Ironson wants and makes him run away from his sick lover (consider that: the superficially leftist intellectual is in fact a thorough conservative, more so than the apparently conservative Joe Pitt). That's what the angels want: unchangeable status quo; all the human history making tempted their god to leave heaven, and they want him back. This is the crux of AinA's undeniable political agenda: it sets out to show how conservatism of necessity thwarts and corrupts human nature. Oh yes, that's a third requirement: you really shouldn't belong to that curious group of people who consider the bible a god-given record of factual happenings rather than a piece of ancient mythology: you are likely to be shocked. Kushner's fantasies on biblical themes are very original indeed, and fit into a long tradition of reinterpreting ancient mythology in contemporary contexts. The church could learn a thing or two from him.
Personally, I was very deeply moved by the experience of watching this (as I was by the play nearly ten years ago). I'm sure that, unlike some people seem to think, you don't need to be like the gay men portrayed in AinA to be able to stand it, let alone like it (a ridiculous notion anyway: as a gay man I constantly watch movies about heterosexuals, and am often touched by them). I'm a Dutchman, I know New York only from a few brief visits, and though I'm gay my lifestyle has very little in common with that of the men in AinA; none of that prevented me from being deeply engrossed in this story. Its themes, as said, are universal (if you doubt that this play is essentially about YOU, the closing scene ought to convince you otherwise; if that scene makes you cringe, as I saw somebody complain, you've not really been watching). Its texts are wonderfully written, unafraid of pathos, farce and intellectualism alike, and fiercely direct in their expression. The acting of the whole cast is formidable. Pacino may be redoing previous roles (Devil's Advocate sprang to mind), but boy, does this Roy Cohn have clout, and in the end, how peculiarly difficult it is to really hate him Patrick Wilson is the perfect pretty boy with a dark secret, and knows how to bring his torment across. Marie-Louise Parker at times has you wondering if she's really been taking pills (and I mean that as a compliment). There simply can't be another Louis than Ben Shenkman (that role was seriously miscast in the Dutch theater production I saw in '95), and Justin Kirk plays his taxing role with utter conviction. Jeffrey Wright goes all out on his ex-drag-queen-with-an-attitude character, and yet succeeds to remain believable as a person. Streep and Thompson are no less great, but I really feel the laurels in the end belong with Parker, Shenkman, Kirk and Wilson. To top it all off, the imagery is beautiful and full of fantasy, without going overboard on bloodless digital effects (it is still a play, remember). The atmosphere is often subtly and hauntingly unreal. And Thomas Newman's score well, like any truly good music, words cannot do it justice.
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