This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
-Change come fast and change come slow, but change come.- This line from Tony Kushner-s new musical, Caroline, or Change, which just opened in New York, has significance in that work-the story of a black domestic maid living through the upheaval of the 1960-s-but it also perfectly sums up the experience of watching the new television event Angels in America.
Much has changed since Angels debuted, but also it feels that the problems it tackled are still with us. Ten years ago, Angels in Americachanged the face of American Theater. It won almost every conceivable prize-Tony, Pulitzer, you name it-and became a social touchstone, introducing to a wide audience the horror of AIDS in much the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird brought home the reality of racial injustice.
For years, a film version has been in the works, but finally director Mike Nichols and HBO decided that the sprawling story about life in the latter half of the 1980-s would be best told as television mini-series. And thankfully, they were right, as Angels in Americais that rare Hollywood spectacle that improves upon the original.
On stage, Kushner-s epic, two-part work brimmed with ideas and ambition, but the works length and didacticism could make Angeles feel less like a piece of theater and more like a lecture. Kushner himself adapted the screenplay and he has done an admirable job, but it is Nichols, one of the few people completely fluent in both the language of cinema and theater, who deserves much of the credit. Kushner-s play is an ungainly mix of social realism and flamboyant theatricality, which can feel like a Clifford Odets play melded with a Meyerbeer opera. Nichols finds the right balance, reigning in both Kushner-s sermons and spectacle, but always stays true to the playwright-s intentions.
In this television version, the scenes play with a briskness they lacked on stage. Yes, there are still ponderous and pretentious moments, but Kushner-s best dialogue still crackles and his grand themes seem much more focused.
The main reason for this is that Nichols and Kushner have truly made the characters in Angels feel like real people. On stage, Prior, Belize and Mother Pitt could feel like symbols or ciphers-but in this filmed version, all of the characters come alive. Part of this may simply be the immediacy of television and the ability of Nichols and Kushner to set the scenes in their actual locations-Bethesda fountain, the Oak Room at the Park Plaza, etc.-which gives the filmed version a greater sense of naturalism.
But the main reason for this is the acting. Angels in Americahas assembled the world-s finest English-speaking actors and given them meaty, substantive parts. Talented young stage actors like Ben Shenkman and Mary-Louise Parker, who have shined in the theater, but never really found good roles in films, finally get a chance to show their talents. Veterans like Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep also stand out, in multiple roles-as does Jeffrey Wright, the one performer who was in the original Broadway production of ANGELS.
But the actor who provides ANGLES with its emotional center is Al Pacino. Those who have seen Pacino-s recent work on stage have been fearing that the legendary actor had lost touch with his theatrical roots. Hammy turns in Brecht-s IRRESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI and Wilde-s SALOME, were little better than some of his lackluster film work. But his performance here as Roy Cohn is his best work in decades.
In Kushner-s play, the part of Cohn was showy and many feared that Pacino would simply give it his standard -Hoo-Ha!- treatment. But instead, Pacino becomes the twisted, tortured Cohn, showing in all his hideous grandeur, but also revealing the human being behind the monster. It-s amazing that Pacino can still be this good and that one performance can have such an impact of the overall work. HBO-s Angels in Americais a rare treat, something that makes one believe, not just in the power of theater, but in television as well.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.