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By Eric Nicholson
Try this for an impressive balancing act: Tony Kushner, 39, the most acclaimed American playwright of his generation, can wash dishes, grind coffee beans, and sling blade-sharp observations about Marx, Brecht, and the Christian Coalition with little apparent strain.
He does all three at the same time during an hour-long conversation to promote the Dallas Theater Center production of Millennium Approaches, the first play of his two-part Angels in America. Originally commissioned for a paltry sum by a San Francisco-based garage theater, the two pieces, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, concern love, spiritual conflict, and political upheaval during the mid-'80s, both here and in the collapsing Soviet Union. Together they earned a Pulitzer Prize, two Tonys for Best Play, countless other international theatrical citations, and overnight stardom for their pudgy, opinionated, surprisingly vulnerable playwright.
"I would be terrified to write the story of my life," Kushner says, referring to the infrequent autobiographical moments that occur in his plays. "In fact, let me say that's a particular terror of mine. I'm afraid there'd be nothing left to write about, and I'd dry up. History is my passion."
The history of Tony Kushner is a tangle of contradictions. He's a native Brooklynite who was raised on the edge of a swamp in Lake Charles, La.; a Jew who professes deep respect for the religious traditions of his people, yet also confesses he is made "deeply uncomfortable" by discussions of spirituality; and a proud gay activist who rejects popular speculation about the role of genetics in homosexuality in deference to the Freudian philosophy, "Sexuality is the product of trauma."
Kushner studied medieval art at Columbia, then graduated to student protest and Brechtian theatrical collectives at New York University. Before Angels, only one of his plays was commercially produced--A Bright Room Called Day, which compared the Nazi-fueled collapse of German social permissiveness in the 1930s Weimar Republic with Ronald Reagan's American election in 1980. Critics praised it in California, but sneered at in New York for its lefty earnestness.
"An important goal of mine as a playwright is never to condescend," Kushner says, "but in order to avoid that you have to make certain assumptions about the audience. With Angels, I always assumed that most theatergoers have already accepted homosexuality as a human phenomenon. I'd never write a play that screams, 'Being gay is OK!' Any play that tries to convince George W. Bush of that will be awfully dull."
Millennium Approaches doesn't preach or pander. Like Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage And Her Children (Kushner's favorite play), its script offers us a series of characters who struggle to retain their shaky personal philosophies (rationalizations, mostly) in a chaotic time.
Millennium focuses on two star-struck relationships: the always philosophical but ultimately heartless Jewish legal clerk named Louis, who abandons his drag-queen Protestant lover, Prior, when the latter succumbs to HIV; and the troubled Mormon marriage between a prophetic woman, Valium addict Harper, and her closeted gay husband, right-wing Joe.
Ultimately, it is history that divides these fragile couples, in the figure of a gigantic angel who descends from heaven with a mission for Prior. The genius of Kushner's dialogue--equal parts abstract social debate and intimate poetic pain--is that he explores contemporary political conflicts in the vernacular of heartbreak. Blacks confront Jews; gay men face off against each other and the loved ones they've deceived; and the collective spirit of grass-roots American liberalism cries out against the crusade of Reagan individualism. On every level, there is a sense of great personal loss because Kushner returns for sobriety's sake again and again to the horror of AIDS.
Kushner found the play's "fantastic villain" in the notorious life of a real man. Roy Cohn was Joseph McCarthy's personal aide during McCarthy's 1950s campaign against suspected Communists, and the lawyer who trampled every possible ethical restraint to ensure that Ethel Rosenberg was executed ("a judicial murder," Kushner calls it). Throughout the early '80s, he was a powerful player among Reagan appointees, based mostly on his ability to dig up dirt on the men above him.
The closeted Cohn was eulogized as a shriveled, repulsive dwarf by 60 Minutes just months before his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1986. He died disbarred and disgraced. After his premature funeral, both liberals and conservatives agreed he was a weasel who would have sold anyone out for personal gain.
As a repressed gay Jewish kid with pinko parents who read about a famous repressed gay Jewish crusader against Communism, Tony Kushner admits he has been "fascinated" since early in his life by Cohn, so much so that he gave his fictionalized Cohn the best monologue in Millennium Approaches. In the moments after Roy is diagnosed with HIV by his doctor, the bastard turns self-hatred into a pragmatic political philosophy that pretty much knocks the wind out of American "identity" politics:
"Like all labels [gay and lesbian] tells you one thing only: Where do I fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? It's not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who picks up the phone when I call. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in 15 years cannot get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through the city council."
Kushner rejects almost any pessimistic interpretation of his words. Despite the cynical psychoanalytic traditions to which he ascribes, he is a frank optimist. He speaks in a professorial lilt full of literary references, but cuts to the chase when discussing the genesis of Angels in America.
"I initially set out to write about gay men during the dawn of AIDS, and the culture shock they encountered under a right-wing administration," Kushner says. "My politics were pretty clear. I wanted to place a marginalized group in the center. Then, with rewrite after rewrite, the play became more spiritually tainted."
The "reactions" to which Tony Kushner refers are the speculations by gushing critics and political pundits who came between the feverishly praised Millennium Approaches and its hotly anticipated sequel, Perestroika. These commentators obsessed about the fact that the play's Angel of History makes her dramatic debut at the close of Millennium with a promise of profound revelation.
"Some national commentators, whose names I won't mention, wrote copy that basically predicted what the Angel might say in Perestroika," says Kushner. "They became overexcited about what they thought she would finally reveal. It was a burden for me. I began to feel like people thought I'd received a message from God. Finally, a columnist in a gay newspaper said, 'Tony's a playwright, not a prophet."
In every interview and each play, the playwright strongly distances himself from any kind of artistic leadership role. He despises capitalism and the illusion of individual supremacy he believes it creates. In two forewords and an afterword to the published script of Angels in America, Tony Kushner spreads wide collaborative credits for the play's final draft. In the dedication to the paperback edition, he cites the input--among friends, family, and professional associates--of "one-night stands."
When asked about the unconventional credit, Kushner turns a shade of red so deep you can hear it over the phone. "Well, I met this guy who was completely adorable, so of course I never saw him again," says Kushner.
This philosophy of messy, almost improvisational collaboration spreads to his feelings about a play's production. Kushner is adamant that the best stagings for Angels are stripped-down simple, full of last-minute ideas, maybe even a little crude.
"So many American critics have been overprotective of the stage, not letting theater people risk making fools of themselves or showing the rough edges," Kushner says. "When I teach classes, I always tell my students, 'The imperfection of theatrical illusion teaches critical consciousness.' If everything else works right, you can have this angel come down from the ceiling on creaky wires, with wings full of chicken feathers and a bad wig, and still create a thrilling kind of alternative reality, maybe even something like a religious experience."
Kushner is clearly unconcerned that most theater companies around the world won't have the $4.2 million that was poured into George C. Wolfe's Broadway production of Angels. "One of the finest versions I saw was staged by NYU students in a room full of cardboard boxes," Kushner says. "I hope production values aren't the focus of people's concerns with this play. It's not like we're saying, 'We're gonna do Phantom of the Opera, but we don't have the money to buy a chandelier that weighs five million pounds.' Why else would you see Phantom except for the expensive gimmicks? Certainly not for the music."
The Dallas Theater Center opens Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, directed by Richard Hamburger, March 21. Call 526-8857.