The ‘90s are back, and so are the closet, AIDS hysteria, and serious denial, all encapsulated in the current Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s sweeping two-part epic, Angels in America. The plays—subtitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika—involve a flamboyant New York City gay man, Prior Walter (played by Andrew Garfield), who develops AIDS and is promptly abandoned by his squeamish lover (James McArdle), leading to all kinds of hyper-poetic visitations and hallucinations. In a parallel plot, closeted Mormon Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) gets swept up by his mentor, the slithery, power-mad Republican lawyer Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane), and ends up revealing his gayness to his wife, Harper (Denise Gough), who spirals into the same mental netherworld populated by Prior Walter. Throw in a gay nurse, Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and the stage is set for lots of healing and squealing.
At last Wednesday’s Friedman’s restaurant meet and greet for the nominees of the Drama Desk Awards (which the production is nominated for six of, along with 11 Tony nominations), I got to talk with some of the noted actors who are helping Angels fly.
The brilliant Nathan Lane sat down with me just as I was glancing at my laptop, rereading my item joking that for the midnight performance of Three Tall Women, Nathan would play Glenda Jackson’s son. I nervously logged off and instead asked Nathan about his Angels performance, wondering if he feels he humanizes Roy Cohn (pictured above, far right, with Donald Trump, left, and Ed Koch, center), as many have noted.
“What we try to do is find the human being,” said Nathan, “even in somebody like Roy Cohn. You also have to separate the real guy from the character. There’s Tony Kushner’s version and the real version, and he’s done a tremendous amount of research, and there are places of intersection. Certainly, Tony has given in the text bits of humanity to Roy. There is a person there underneath the bile and reprehensible behavior.”
Nathan added that his humanity comes out “especially in Perestroika, when I’m charting the disintegration, when his body and mind start start to fade.
“With these co-called monsters,” he went on, “you become a bit of a forensics expert or a psychologist. ‘What led him to become that way? What was little Roy Cohn like?’ You can talk to people who were friends with him who’ll tell you how charming and funny he was—to be around that kind of energy and power was intoxicating. And when he was loyal, he was really loyal. He was capable of real loyalties and friendships, unlike the man he mentored to the presidency [Nathan meant the lovely and glamorous Donald Trump]. He had a friend named Russell who was an assistant slash procurer, and then Russell got AIDS, and though Roy refused to even talk about AIDS, he took care of him. He helped him through the progression of the disease. Towards the end, he put him in one of Trump’s hotels and got him private nurses and he’d visit him. So he had seen what the disease can do to you—but he was wildly promiscuous and self-destructive.”
“Is the show a stinging indictment of the closet?” I wondered, hoping for a yes. “On a basic level,” Nathan replied, “but Roy’s version of the closet is so complicated. Sidney Zion, who co-wrote Roy’s memoir, said Roy lived in a neon closet, which is funny because neon is part of the set design. Once Roy’s mother died, he became more open. He was brazen about it, but would still deny it publicly. He had a boyfriend named Peter—”
“Wait a minute,” I stammered. “Roy Cohn had a boyfriend and I don’t?” I sat in transfixed silence for 20 seconds as I pondered this unthinkable twist of queer fate. Nathan bravely went on, explaining that, even with a boyfriend, Cohn was still cagy: “There’s the famous scene where the doctor tells Roy he has AIDS and he goes into lawyer mode and explains that he couldn’t possibly have AIDS because homosexuals get AIDS. He says, ‘I have sex with men, but it doesn’t mean I’m a homosexual.’ He’s trying to control the situation and humiliate the doctor so he’ll feel like himself again.”
But eventually, said Nathan, Roy becomes hopeless in his battle against the virus, feeling “I can fix anything, but I can’t fix this.” At this point, a smiling woman approached Nathan and earnestly gushed, “Thank you for your grace and intelligence onstage.” “Who does she think you are?” I cracked to the actor. “Glenda Jackson,” he replied.
Also at the Drama Desk event, I asked James McArdle, who plays Louis, the same is-the-play-an-indictment-of-the-closet question and he replied, “I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what the play’s dealing with. With Joe, for example, there’s an anger, but I think Joe is humanized. Tony had anger, but he wrote parts of Joe that had a real compassion. He’s just scared.”
And is there any compassion for McArdle’s character or is he just plain cowardly for running away from Prior? “That’s what people say about him,” said McArdle, “and I understand why, but I’ve found a way to love him. That he flees Prior because he’s frightened of AIDS—I don’t really buy that. There’s got to be something more. For me, the reason I leave is because I’m already grieving him. It’s grief that causes me to leave—his fear of watching the love of his life die.”
I got one more Angel-ic voice to chime in when I spoke with Denise Gough (who’s Tony nominated as Harper and Drama Desk nominated for off-Broadway’s People, Places, & Things). She agreed about the potency of the play’s closet theme and said the point is “to be true to yourself, to be true to your own power. Life is in chaos for Harper because of someone in the closet [Joe].” The message, she said, is “It’s important to be out.”
Gough agreed with me that Harper and Prior are connected “through their devastation. There’s a scene where they meet and give each other a bit of strength and go on. I feel she’s his guardian angel and he is hers—helping strengthen each other through the devastation. When they meet in heaven, they talk about what they’ve learned and how important it is to let go.”
Before I let her go, I had to ask Gough: If Roy Cohn were alive today, would he be working for Trump? Her answer: “[Republican strategist] Roger Stone, that equally odious man, was working with Trump, but Trump sacked him. The problem with these people is the size of the egos, so they can’t have anyone around who can take responsibility. Anyway, Roger and Roy Cohn decided 35 years ago to approach Trump about being president and he said no.” “I wish he’d stuck with that ‘no,’” I remarked and we shared an exasperated look. “Ego, ego, ego!” she exclaimed (as I looked around and was delighted to see that no one thought we were talking about them).
But Gough had lovely things to say about the LGBT community, telling me, “The way Belize gets Louis to say the Kaddish over Roy Cohn’s body—that’s the ultimate win for the gay community. It says everything about forgiveness, and it has real grace. My community—I’m not gay, but so many of my friends are that I feel part of that community—through all the shame and shit put on them, they had grace. Roy Cohn never had grace.”