'Angels' heard on high
Landmark play gets HBO treatment
By Todd Leopold
Emma Thompson comes down from heaven in "Angels in America."
ON CNN TV
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(CNN) -- I saw "Angels in America" far from New York and Broadway -- in Atlanta, with a cast made up of local actors (if very fine local actors), several years after it had bowled over the Great White Way and even more years removed from the time the play was set.
It was amazing.
Playwright Tony Kushner's dialogue was erudite and elegant yet fast and funny and full of fury. The characters were layered with shades of gray -- even the dark-souled lawyer Roy Cohn (played by the remarkable Chris Kayser in the Atlanta production), who could have been presented as one step removed from the devil.
The work would seem to be a natural for the movies. Yet, over the years, "Angels" has remained stagebound. It's not a terrible place to be -- performed live, the play packs more punch than any dozen Hollywood films -- but it's the kind of work that demands a larger audience.
HBO (like CNN, a division of Time Warner) is finally taking it to that level. The cable network's $60 million production of "Angels" will run on two consecutive Sundays, and from advance reports, it's lost nothing in the translation from stage to screen.
Eye on Entertainment takes flight.
The HBO version of "Angels in America" has a terrific pedigree: directed by Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge," "Working Girl"), adapted by Kushner himself, starring Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Mary-Louise Parker, James Cromwell, and Al Pacino as Cohn.
If the work can be said to have a center, it's a disease, not a character.
It's the mid-1980s and AIDS is a scourge ripping through New York. Cohn, a deeply closeted homosexual, is dying of the disease and ranting about the world. Belize (Wright) is his caretaker. Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) is a Mormon lawyer, also in denial about his homosexuality, married to the fragile Harper (Parker). Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is dying of AIDS; his lover, Louis (Ben Shenkman), abandons him.
And there's also Ethel Rosenberg (Streep), whom Cohn helped send to the electric chair in the '50s; Mr. Lies (Wright again), Harper Pitt's hallucination; an Orthodox rabbi (Streep again), and -- of course -- the angel (Thompson), who appears to Prior Walter and designates him a prophet ... after crashing through the ceiling of his apartment.
Early reviews have focused on Pacino and Streep, who have known each other for more than 25 years but never acted together. But without fine performances by the lesser-known Wilson, Kirk and Shenkman, "Angels" would have been woefully unbalanced. Instead, word is it hits on all cylinders.
The original play appeared in two parts -- "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika." The play was barely cut for its transfer to broadcast. The first part, more or less, runs December 7; the second part follows a week later. It's six hours of time well spent.
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