I saw Part 1 of Angels in America on Broadway last night. I read the play in 2014 and remember very little of it, other than it was about AIDS and it was very depressing.
In a sentence, I was absolutely blown away. For those unfamiliar with the story, it essentially follows various characters affected in various ways by the AIDS epidemic, beginning in November 1985. Most notably Roy M. Cohn, played by Nathan Lane, Prior Walter, played by Andrew Garfield, Joseph Pitt, played by Lee Pace, Harper Pitt, played by Denise Gough, and Louis Ironson, played by James McArdle.
Louis and Prior have been in a relationship for four and a half years. Roy is a very high up and famous NYC lawyer with plentiful ‘klout’ as he makes sure to mention. Joe and Harper are married, Mormon, and miserable.
*There will be spoilers.* Prior immediately reveals to Louis that he has begun to have lesions, caused by Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a disease that can come as a result of AIDS. Louis is terrified, and as the play goes on, the terror drives him away from Prior, causing him to cheat and eventually leave Prior while he is still in the hospital. The abandoned lover theme echoes in the relationship between Joseph and Harper, a lawyer and a pill addict respectively. Harper and Prior meet in a dream/hallucination sequence where Prior informs her that her husband is ‘a homo.’ Deep down, she knows this. And she confronts him. It adds even more tension to their relationship, and eventually he reveals to his mother on the phone that he is indeed ‘a homo.’ Joseph works for Roy Cohn, who halfway through the first part of the play, is diagnosed with AIDS, but refuses to acknowledge that diagnosis, as that’s ‘what homosexuals get.’
I don’t want to get too too specific. But part one finds all of the characters adapting, struggling and perhaps hating their situations. Prior spends the majority of part 1 alone in a hospital room, slowly spiraling down into a self-induced madness that eventually climaxes in his seeing a (frightening) angel that tells him he will be a prophet. I felt genuine sadness for him as a character. He was played so endearingly and sadly by Andrew Garfield. There was one scene towards the end between he and Louis that legitimately made me emotional because it was so beautiful and heart-shattering. Louis spends the entirety of part one wrestling with his internal guilt. He wants to love Prior. He believes he does, even after leaving him, but he is so horrified by the sores and lesions, vomiting, blood and other effects of the disease. This leads to the most memorable line of this section of the play for me, ‘Love isn’t ambivalent.’ Harper and Joe fight until Joe breaks down and calls his mother at 4am to tell her he’s a homosexual. He’s been repressed his whole life as a Mormon, and tried to beat this part of him to death. He married Harper, who was his best friend, and yet can find no sexual feelings for her. And of course, Roy. Who is powerful and loveless, determined to live on in history past his death, convinced he’s a heterosexual that ‘fucks around with guys,’ convinced he is immortal, all the while being crippled by a disease he refuses to acknowledge that he has. Roy’s only connection to the other characters is through Joseph, which adds to his isolation as a character, as all of the other characters interact with one another at one point or another.
This show in my eyes tests the limits of love. The ‘love isn’t ambivalent’ line is tested even before it is spoken aloud. Louis can’t bring himself to be with Prior through his disease but believes he loves him. Prior is left completely alone by the man he loves. They’re not ambivalent. Harper is completely in love with Joe and Joe says he loves her and won’t leave her. But he doesn’t love her the way she loves him and that’s not enough for her. They’re not ambivalent. Roy is loveless. And ambivalent about his disease.
This play (the first part!) was shockingly moving to me. I wasn’t around during the beginning and height of the AIDS epidemic (which Reagan was silent about). But everyone who talks about it talks about the fear and sadness that came with it. All of these characters are normal, everyday people, all in various places in their lives, who have to deal with the inevitable loss coming their way. While watching, I felt the unsafe and fearful nature surrounding homosexuality at the time, and the automatic association that homosexuality = AIDS. It was very moving, gripping, and sad. I saw several people crying. I am still thinking about it a lot the next day, which can only be a good thing. Source material doesn’t always do that.
I am very excited to see part two. Very excited. I will have more to say after seeing it, for the play as a whole, so stay tuned!