The Play That Changed My Life, Part Two

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I am a firm believer that every night that you enter a theater you are putting yourself in a position to transform your life as with no other art form. At its best the interplay between ideas, emotions, music, visual splendor and community have the potential to push you forward to a greater understanding of who you are and where you belong in relation to humanity and what it means to be a participant, fully alive in the world.

I have written about how “The Glass Menagerie” woke me up to the power and primacy of dramatic literature in my life and the current pandemic crisis has got me thinking about another play that changed my life. It is, coincidentally or not, centered around a disease but it also marked a major turning point in my life. If “The Glass Menagerie” inspired me to pursue a career in New York City, “Angels in America” inspired me to do work that was vitally important, politically engaged and honest to who I was.

Angels in America
Marcia Gay Harden, David Marshall Grant, Kathleen Chalfant, Ron Leibman, Ellen McLaughlin, Stephen Spinella, Joe Mantello, and Jeffrey Wright, 1993

When I lived in the city, I always lucked into great jobs. One of them was working at Hamburger Harry’s on West 45th street right off of Times Square. The servers were all artists, the customers were show fans and theater professionals but nobody was more colorful than Dom Facolta. He was an outrageous, fabulous man who waited on tables as if he were center stage and acted as if his salty tongue and razor wit were why you were stopping by and not the Ha-Ha Burger. Nobody sold more blue-plate specials. Although he performed drag, he wouldn’t deign to go see Broadway, much less my dingy showcases way downtown. He didn’t feel “seen” or represented on Broadway.

“Angels in America” was an epic play, Part One “Millennium Approaches” had premiered on Broadway in 1993 while Tony Kushner was still working on Part Two “Perestroika.” It’s first act was called “Bad News” and introduced us to the young lovers Louis and Prior (who is shortly diagnosed with AIDS), the closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt, his valium popping wife Harper and Roy Cohn, the infamous Red baiting, friend of the Reagans lawyer who in a fit of self-denial tells the doctor who is diagnosing him with AIDS in a hilariously delusional and maniacal monologue that “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, who fucks around with guys.”

In great “two scenes” with scintillating dialogue, the characters hammer each other with their defenses, fears and posturing. In facing death, they are characters in extremis forced to face who they are and what they are doing with their lives. It was fiercely intelligent, righteously angry and very, very funny. It was a bracing, artistic cri de Coeur that somehow could even shake Broadway and open your eyes to the possibilities of theater. It was a galvanizing moment in American theater in response to a national health crisis while it was still raging that stands as a colossus today challenging us to respond in kind.

While writing this, I pulled out my copy of the play and there was a quote from Kushner I had saved that fell out. “I think most people, actors and directors and playwrights and audience members are afraid of ideas and afraid of emotions as well. And we should be. Ideas and emotions are dangerous. They threaten stability, stasis, habit, our comfort in the world. But there’s no such thing as a theater void of ideas or emotions.”

I re-watched the Mike Nichols HBO adaptation of the play starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson this week and I was shaken by many of the parallels with today and jotted down some lines that moved me. When Prior Walter in a fever dream is visited by ancestors who succumbed to previous plagues who tell him “The pestilence in my time was much worse than now. Whole villages of empty houses. You could look outdoors and see Death walking in the morning, dew dampening the ragged hem of his black robe.” A line like that in 1994 could have made you laugh but now that we are in the fifth week of shelter in place it just informs you that we are on a continuum.

Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella

Last summer, Stephen Spinella who created the role of Prior Walter and was playing Roy Cohn in a San Francisco production had an email correspondence with Andrew Garfield who would go on to win a Tony Award for the revival of “Angels in America” then playing on Broadway. In the exchange which was in the New York Times, Stephen says about a line in the play “’In the new century we will all be insane.’ That just nails the prophetic soul of this play, Andrew. From the late ’80s into the ’90s I listened to that line as I have listened to it here now for five months, and I never heard it. The world right now, and all of us in it, feel so insane. I imagine after Brexit you felt that as deeply as we do here with Trump.” And that was how he felt last summer!?! How insane do you feel right now?

Finally, I have a very gifted acting student, Maghen Ryan, who does a monologue of Harper’s from the end of Part One that I have thought of almost every day in the past month or so as it sums up the profound grief for the things we are losing-family gatherings, theater, opportunities, jobs, 35,000 fellow Americans and the indomitable courage we are willing ourselves to muster to face every day optimistically. “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.

When Part Two, “Perestroika” opened on Broadway in 1994. I had been in the city for 13 years. I had done dozens of showcases, taken thousands of hours of classes and worked regionally but I was deeply dissatisfied with the content of what I was working on and whether it was urgently necessary by anyone, but especially by me. So what, I wasn’t making any money but if I was not doing work that moved me spiritually, emotionally or politically then what was the point?

David Marshall Grant and Ron Leibman

Somehow, I convinced my waiter friend Dom who was grieving the loss of his partner to let me treat him to “Angels” Part Two. I don’t know why I felt it was imperative that I take him to this. We had never socialized outside the restaurant after five years working together. I had my own issues of sexual identity, addictions and life’s purpose that were roiling within me in the face of the plague and the cauldron that was Manhattan. Our tears rolled in unison at the closing lines “We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Within a year Dom would be dead of AIDS and I would be home in Albany pursuing my Great Work.

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