- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Sunday night at 8 p.m. HBO presents the first part of a six-hour drama, “Angels in America.” Budgeted at $60 million, directed by the prestigious film and stage director — and brand new Kennedy Center honoree — Mike Nichols, “Angels” stars Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson. Among them, the director and his three stars own eight Academy Awards.

The drama’s author, Tony Kushner, won seven Tony awards and, in 1993, a Pulitzer Prize for the play. Fair warning: Mr. Kushner is a foaming ideologue. His agenda has an agenda. In a recent interview in “POZ,” a glossy magazine for AIDS patients, Mr. Kushner opined, for example: “In the middle of this hideous, illegitimate, criminal administration and this toxic environment nationally in terms of the dangerous, crazed House of Representatives and the ineffectual split-down-the-middle Senate, you have the Supreme Court overturning sodomy, and Massachusetts hopefully on the brink of putting a judicial stamp on gay marriage, and Canada having done it.”

Now, for the show. The opening titles may well be the most handsome shots in the first part, “Angels in America.” (The second part, “Perestroika,” airs a week later, Dec. 14, also at 8 p.m.) The drama opens with a shot of clouds filmed from above — an angel’s-eye view. The clouds part every few moments to reveal American landmarks — San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis — and then, descending from the sky, the camera comes to rest on the Bethesda angel in a fountain in New York’s Central Park. As the angel is framed in close-up, it turns its head and looks through the screen at us, the viewing audience.

Mr. Kushner is concerned with love, dying from AIDS, hypocrisy and power. The latter three components are all concentrated in the persona of a highly imaginative and prejudiced view of the late Roy M. Cohn, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s loyal committee counsel, excoriated as perhaps the most evil, wicked man perhaps in history. Lenin? Hitler? Stalin? Mr. Kushner knows whom he wants to hate.

Al Pacino does yet another of his over-the-top numbers — raging, manipulating, wheedling as he endeavors to portray to just what dreadful purposes a powerful man can wield his power. Indeed, Mr. Pacino’s histrionics as Mr. Cohn reminded me of nothing so much as his performance as Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate.”

The story line is a much-convoluted one with coincidental encounters. One young man, Prior Walter (played by a handsome young actor, Justin Kirk), learns he is dying of AIDS. Lou, his lover of 41/2 years, deserts him, filled with guilt — but not so much guilt he doesn’t begin flirting with a young Mormon law clerk who is being wooed by Roy Cohn. Belize, a black former drag queen and hospital nurse, cares for, first, Prior, whose onetime lover he was, and later for the dying, raging Roy Cohn.

And that’s just the men.

As for the women, you have: Meryl Streep as the Mormon’s mom and Mary Louise Parker as the Mormon’s young wife who hallucinates all the time, ending up at one point in one of Prior’s hallucinations. Do you begin to grasp all the intertwining that goes on?

Miss Streep outdoes herself here in roles as an aged, male rabbi — impossible to recognize — the sturdy down-to-earth Mormon mother and yes, Ethel Rosenberg, come to haunt Roy Cohn’s dying days.

Emma Thompson also plays three different parts: a half-demented street person, a tough New York nurse and, of course, one of the eponymous angels, equipped with splendiferous wings and bearing sundry enigmatic messages to the hallucinating and dying Prior.

The one really impressive performance here is turned in by Jeffrey Wright as a nurse in the hospital’s AIDS ward.

He establishes a kind of fraternal bond with Cohn, even while holding him in deepest contempt. His performance is subtle, well-observed, and he delivers the camp humor with just the right touch of swish. Mr. Wright held the role on the stage, and, if anything, has heightened and refined his playing. Almost worth seeing “Angels” for — almost.

Critics sympathetic to Mr. Kushner’s political stance have lavishly praised “Angels in America,” both the original play and, now, the HBO movie. However, the truth is that “Angels” is exhausted by its politics, and Mr. Kushner lacks the aesthetic objectivity of the true dramatist.

Tony Kushner needn’t bother writing plays. For his didactic purposes, interviews are just fine.

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