Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why Don't I Like Angels In America?

This past month, I've had the opportunity to see the play Angels in America, which is considered by many to be one of the most important contemporary American plays in theatre history and certainly a pivotal play in the history of gay drama. It has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award and Drama Desk Award. Its television adaptation won several Emmys. It is required reading in many theatre programs across the country and probably the world. In many ways, it is a play of epic proportions with very good writing and interesting characters. It's rarely performed in my neck of the woods (Utah) and so to get a chance to actually see a production of it is something that should be done. I've had a month to see it. Tonight was closing night (sold out, by the way), and yet I had put off seeing it. Why? Because I do not like the play. In fact, the only reason I saw it was because three very good friends of mine were in it and I wanted to support them (that, and a discounted ticket).

As a gay man; as someone who grew up Mormon; as someone who grew up in the 80s; as an actor; as someone who considers himself a theatre connoisseur; as someone who appreciates good acting and good writing, I have every reason to be attracted to and like this play. But I don't, and I can't even really explain why. And every fiber of my being tells me I'm supposed to like this play and that if I don't, there's something wrong with me. I feel the same way about Citizen Kane as far as films go.

Don't get me wrong. From a technical standpoint; from a creative standpoint; from an acting and writing standpoint; and as far as its importance in theatre and its impact on the time it was written, I can appreciate it (just as I understand why Citizen Kane is an important movie in film history). I appreciate Angels in America's value and craftsmanship and understand why it's so important in theatre history, in drama, and, specifically, in gay drama. I can appreciate why it is so critically acclaimed; I just have never really felt connected or drawn to it. It doesn't speak to me for some reason.

I actually auditioned for this production at the director's request for the part of Roy Cohn, although I knew I was too young to play the role. Still, it's a part that an actor would love to sink his teeth into and give those teeth for a chance to play it. And yet, although I needed the job, part of me was hoping not to get cast because I'm not passionate about the play (although I wonder if I had been cast if maybe I would have developed more of an appreciation for the piece). As it turns out, I wasn't cast (I was told I gave an amazing audition but was deemed too young for the role) and ended up getting a part in another play, which I am currently doing. In any case, I was somewhat relieved.

Angels in America has some brilliant writing and great characters. It's a daunting and challenging piece and certainly has poignancy. The production I saw this evening was well acted and well directed. I was proud of my friends' work (really, the whole cast was quite good). And yet, I just didn't feel particularly engaged. This is no one's fault but mine and my own prejudices towards the play.

I've read the play several times over the course of my life and while getting both my Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Theatre. I've analyzed it, written about it, seen scenes from it, and even did a project on it in my undergraduate school. But it's always felt like a chore.

I remember the first time I read it. It was for a class on contemporary drama. We read, discussed, and did projects on many plays that quarter, Angels in America being one of them. At that time, it was all the rage. It may have still been on Broadway or just recently finished its Broadway run. It was considered very topical, very important, and very required reading. I had recently returned from my mission and, frankly, knew very little about it. In the class we were divided in groups of two or three and each group had to do a specific play as a project. Somehow, my group was saddled with Angels in America. I began reading this play I knew nothing about and, quite frankly, hated it. Now I will freely admit that at the time I was still very closeted and just fresh off of my mission, so maybe that had something to do with my bias against it. I couldn't stand the swearing, the characters, and what at the time I felt was disjointed writing (I no longer feel that way today).

The characters of Joe and Harper Pitt (a Mormon couple, one of whom is a closeted gay) were not like any Mormons I personally knew, and I did not relate to either of them, although I certainly should have been able to relate to Joe at least on some level. As for the the other main characters, a gay man dying of AIDS; his Jewish partner who leaves him because he can't deal with his illness; a gay nurse; the lawyer, Roy Cohn; etc., I just didn't relate to any of them or know anybody like them at that time. The very New York vibe of the play was also foreign to me. The political and thematic elements were kind of lost of this naive Utah boy, and quite frankly, I think the play was too smart for me at the time.

In any case, I resented having to do my project on this particular play. It was drudgery. I also freely admit that, at the time, a gay-themed play was something frightening to someone who was trying to suppress anything gay that was inside of him.

However, as years went by and I matured and became smarter, on subsequent readings of the play, I was able to assess and appreciate its value. Tonight was the first time I'd ever seen an entire, fully-mounted production of the play (well, part 1 at least; they're doing part 2 as a reading), and certainly I could appreciate the acting, scene work, writing, and thematic elements. It's a very well-crafted and dramatic piece. But I still don't like it. Even though I feel I ought to relate to these characters, I don't (even Joe, who is the most relatable character to me, specifically, I think). I certainly can't say I was bored, although I did find myself looking at my watch wondering how much longer it would be before the show ended.

The truth of the matter is I'm not even sure why I dislike the play. I have every reason to like it, but I don't. On some level I even feel it's overrated, but I don't know why. I feel like I ought to like it or that I'm supposed to like it, but I don't. It isn't the writing. It's very good writing. It wasn't the acting. It was well-acted. Even though I don't fully relate to any of the characters, they are are well-written, fully-developed, interesting characters. The themes of the piece are certainly relevant. The subject matter is not distasteful to me. Logically, I understand why it is an important piece of theatre. I don't regret seeing it. I think it was worth my time The play still resonates, I think. It just doesn't seem to resonate with me personally.

Perhaps I'm still carrying old prejudices. No matter how many times I've read the play (and now, having seen a decent production of it), I still feel disconnected from it. It doesn't draw me in or affect me emotionally. I appreciate it from a technical standpoint, but not a visceral one. It's like I'm standing outside it thinking, "I should like this. I should find this compelling. I should be moved by this. I should relate to this." But I don't. I never have. And I'm not really sure why.


MoHoHawaii said...

I don't like these two plays either.

For me, the whole story is about Louis and his elaborate rationalizations for doing the unforgivable: out of selfishness and fear and cowardice he leaves another human being-- one who loves and needs him-- to die alone. The character of Louis seems like a thinly veiled stand-in for the author, as if the entire play is Kushner seeking expiation through art. Overall I find the play self-serving and morally repellent.

As a Mormon play, it misses several cultural notes. The Mormon characters don't feel very 'Mormon,' with the possible exception of Joe Pitt. [Carol Lynn Pearson does Mormon much better than Kushner. She gets it.]

Do you agree with this view?

Gay LDS Actor said...

I admit the first time I read the play, I thought Louis behaved horribly. Watching it last night played by a dear friend of mine, I still think Louis does a terrible thing, but there were and are people out there like that, and I think Kushner is showing a facet of a specific person's reaction to his lover getting AIDS. It's not admirable or desirable, but that's who Louis is. I find him a rather pathetic character.

I do think you may have a point about the play being quite self-serving. Morally repellent, I'm not sure about.

I agree the Mormon characters have never felt particularly "Mormon" to me, although I'm sure people like Joe, Hannah, and Harper exist, but they've always felt like Mormons viewed through a non-Mormon eye. They don't feel genuine to me or, at the very least, I just don't relate to those particular characters as people I recognize.

MoHoHawaii said...

Ha ha. I don't know what it'd be like to watch a bad character played by someone I cared for. Would it make me more sympathetic to the character? Maybe.

Thanks for your perspective. Like you, I wanted to like the play. I've seen two productions live, read the scripts and watched the HBO version (which taught me only that angels have the best haircare products-- Emma Thompson's hair was amazing). I'm still mystified by how that script deserves its vaunted reputation.

Gay LDS Actor said...

I admit watching Louis played by a dear friend (one of the nicest guys I know in real life) did have an impact on my sympathies towards the character. I still find Louis pathetic, but somehow my friend also made me see how much self-loathing Louis has for what he has done, and that made him slightly more palatable. I still don't defend his actions, but I did feel that I could maybe see things better from the character's point-of-view.

I still haven't seen the HBO version. Isaias has a copy, and I respect the actors who are in it quite a bit, but I just haven't been able to get myself to watch it yet. I have better things to do. lol