20th Century Masterpiece “Angels in America” Returns to Toronto (to Dec. 17, 2023)

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the best play of the latter 20th century, last graced a Toronto stage over a decade ago in a thrilling production by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

The welcome return of Angels, now on at Buddies in Bad Times (in a production by That Theatre Company), is an incredible opportunity for Toronto theatregoers to experience this capital-M Masterpiece. That this epic parable of the 1980s AID crisis has found a new home at Buddies, Canada’s leading destination for alternative theatre and a world leader in developing queer voices, makes it all the more exciting.

20th Century Masterpiece "Angels in America" Returns to Toronto

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes debuted in 1991 (Part 1) and 1992 (Part 2) at the tail end of the HIV-AIDS crisis, which reached its peak (or rather, nadir) in the late 1980s, when Angels is set. Kushner wrote from personal experience, basing characters and plotlines on friends and loved ones, while weaving in real-life figures and aspects of magical realism, including the titular celestial beings.

Angels is a tragedy, but it is not pessimistic. Kushner’s anger at the callousness and hypocrisy of the U.S. response to the crisis is on full display here, holding to account all those political, business, and religious leaders who ignored or mocked the suffering of their fellow citizens. Thanks to Kushner’s deft writing, however, that anger is tempered by a heartfelt humanity, sensitive depictions of love and kindness, and the careful deployment of humour as characters – never just “victims” – learn to laugh in the face of doom. Angels has some of the best, tension-puncturing laughs in all of theatre; that you may be crying a few minutes later is testament to Kushner’s skills as a playwright.

Angels is perhaps best described as a tapestry, a series of interwoven threads – personal and political – featuring a cast of about two dozen characters in mid-1980s New York City, with occasional detours to Washington, D.C., Salt Lake City, and other, farther-flung places both real and imaginary. Characters include Prior Walter (played here by Allie MacDonald), whose AIDS diagnosis early in the play sets in motion much of what follows, Prior’s boyfriend Louis Ironson (Ben Sanders), their friends, family, and caregivers (Kaleb Alexander is a standout as the nurse Belize), and several closeted characters, including real-life political fixer Roy Cohn (Jim Mezon).

About Cohn: the Roy Cohn of Angels in America may well be the greatest theatrical creation of the last fifty years. A character so singularly awful, and yet so strangely, charismatically compelling, the audience noticeably shifts in their seats every time he is on stage. Cohn is, today, best known as the mentor of a certain disgraced former U.S. president, the one who keeps threatening a (not entirely inconceivable) comeback in the upcoming elections. At the time Angels was written, however, Cohn was merely the widely reviled McCarthyite prosecutor of the Rosenbergs (if you don’t know their story, Angels will fill you in), and the lawyer who represented a who’s-who of 1980s NYC scumbags, including several mafia figures and that aforementioned ex-president (then just a scumbag property developer). I won’t spoil Cohn’s role in Angels, but he sits at the heart of the story, a mean, vicious little man whose capacity for cruelty and hypocrisy is second to none. According to Wikipedia, Cohn’s career was marked by “theft, obstruction of justice, extortion, tax evasion, bribery, blackmail, fraud, perjury, and witness tampering”. The fictionalized Cohn of Angels is probably less awful than the man he is based on.

Angels, a two-part, seven-plus hour epic (audiences have the choice between seeing it in a single day or across two evenings) is one of those rare works which successfully combines the intimate with the universal, to profound effect. By giving us the time to live and breathe with these characters, following their travails, the hope and the hopelessness, the shock and surprise (including one or two gasp-worthy moments), Angels invites us to experience, however artificially and at a remove, some of what it must have been like to live and die during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s. Watching it today, when many of the ugliest aspects of that era have once more reared their head – and in shockingly familiar forms – reminds us, sadly, of how much work still has to be done.

Kushner, who has gone on to a successful career as Spielberg’s screenwriter on Lincoln, The Fabelmans, and others, has never delivered anything remotely as brilliant or vital as Angels in America. Nobody else has either.

Angels in America (Parts 1 and 2) runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre from November 23 to December 17, 2023. Tickets available here.