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By Robert Nesti
Tony Kushner once said that “Perestroika,” the second half of “Angels in America,” is a much different work than “Millennium Approaches;” and it is. More hopeful and anticipatory, it is a cosmic comedy – a Progressive’s meditation on the progress of man as he approached the new millennium. On stage it felt talkier than the first half; but showed how brilliantly Kushner could tie up its numerous narrative threads, as well as its theological and political subtexts, distilling them down to a simple idea: “Even sick,” his hero Prior Walter tells the angels in the climatic scene “I want to be alive.”
With those words Kushner articulates the great message central to his great play and, as it turns out, great film adaptation, which concluded its first broadcast this Sunday night on HBO with “Perestroika.” If the first half was darkly foreboding; its second half is lighter, funnier, and surprisingly optimistic. (And shorter: he trimmed his stage version by a half-hour.) Who would have thought Prior would even be around after his cosmic encounter with an angel at the end of Part One? And who could have prophesized that Roy Cohn, the embodiment of evil, would turn out to be an angel of mercy to AIDS sufferers?
These are some of the more interesting twists in “Perestroika,” which brings together the characters introduced in “Millennium Approaches” and puts them together in intriguing combinations: Prior and Hannah Pitt, the starchy Mormon who reels at the mention of homosexuality; Louis, Prior’s ex-lover, and Joe Pitt, the closeted lawyer who ghost writes homophobic legal decisions for a Federal judge; and Cohn and Belize, the nurse who outwits Cohn for possession of the much coveted drug AZT.
It is that relationship that is perhaps the most riveting in this second half, largely because screen acting rarely gets a good as it is here. Al Pacino, long his own worst enemy in performance after performance, reins his operatic tendencies in, and gives a performance of such frightening believability as to induce both goosebumps and pity. As he crashes down the corridor in a morphine-induced stupor, Pacino embodies a kind of crippled horror that almost too painful to watch. And Jeffrey Wright as Belize, Cohn’s nurse and tormenter, is equally brilliant, exhibiting a self-possession that never squints when facing his adversary: together they make cinematic fireworks.
What “Perestroika” does so extraordinarily well is amplify the themes and ideas of its first half, while answering the curious questions it raised, such as the meaning of the angel’s visits to Prior. When she does, it’s earthy: one of Kushner’s cleverest devices is to have his angel be a sexual, as well as spectral, being, which leads to one of the film’s funniest scenes putting a new meaning to the term “rapture.” The Angels, it turns out, have an agenda, which is quite imaginatively revealed in a number of fantasy sequences involving Prior, culminating in a visit to heaven that looks like a Calvin Klein ad as imagined in some communist country where even the angels are comrades.
As in Part One, the center of the story is how two very different men confront AIDS: Cohn uses his influence to secure a huge stash of the (then) promising treatment called AZT thinking it might save his life; while Prior’s increasingly eccentric behavior leaves his friends thinking that he’s suffering from some kind of AIDS dementia. “I’m a prophet,” he tells them, as he stalks Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer who is involved with Louis, Prior’s ex. If there’s a soap operatic element to the narrative, it never feels that way; instead Kushner evens the melodrama and politics with heavy doses of irony and camp. It’s not surprising that Prior should speak words spoken by Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” when his fever breaks and he returns to his old self.
Director Mike Nichols blends the intimacy of the human drama with the grandeur of the supernatural one, seamlessly moving between the two worlds Kushner so imaginatively evokes. He also elicits superb performances all around; especially Justin Kirk who plays Prior with heartbreaking subtlety; and Mary-Louise Parker, spunky and hilarious as Harper, Joe Pitt’s valium-addicted wife.
It takes six hours to get to the film’s epiphany: a quiet scene in front of the Bestheda Fountain in Central Park where Prior gathers with his friends to argue politics and look hopefully to the future. Getting there makes for an incredible journey.