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Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America,’ Featuring Trump’s Mentor Roy Cohn, Captures the National Mood

The seminal play is having a moment, on stages around the world and in the Oval Office

Arielle Davinger
July 26, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

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There might come a time when Angels in America is irrelevant. 2017 isn’t that year. I expect the next three years to be locks as well.

But that’s OK, because isn’t it a magnificent work? Written by Tony Kushner and filled with Jewish imagery (as well as Christian and even a surreal Mormon animatronic puppet show), the Pulitzer-prize winning Angels in America is a seminal notch on the bedpost of Jewish theatrical achievement.

The National Theatre in London is streaming their current production of Angels in America in movie theaters internationally. (You know the play has to be good because of its ungainly runtime: two parts running a total of eight hours.) Part One aired last week, July 20th, and the second part will air on the 27th. Jewcy fave Andrew Garfield is currently bearing the burden of Prior Walter, a WASP-descended gay man diagnosed with HIV. His Jewish lover, Louis Ironson, is played by the non-Jewish James McArdle, although I heard McArdle has watched so much Seinfeld to get into character that he’s practically Jewish without the heritage.

Louis is terrible. Louis goes on long, rambling monologues where he explains racism and discrimination to a gay, black drag queen. When he finds out Prior has HIV, Louis abandons him. Louis’ defining characteristics are neurosis, selfishness, guilt, and anxious navel-gazing. Awful, but also, like, #relatable. It’s not anti-Semitic: after all, of all the characters, Louis most closely resembles Kushner, and Jewish playwrights turning themselves into flawed (borderline insufferable) characters in shows about the AIDS crisis is de rigueur.

And then there’s Roy Cohn, based on the real-life Jewish attorney Roy Cohn, who Kushner describes as “all too real.” (In the National Theatre’s current production Cohn is played by Nathan Lane, who isn’t Jewish but, at this point, might as well be.) Cohn is an historical villain famous for his ruthlessness, blood-lust, and underhandedness. Though he died in 1986 from complications of AIDS, the world has arguably never felt his influence more strongly than today: he was Donald Trump’s mentor.

“Everyone who makes it in this world makes it because somebody older and more powerful takes an interest,” the fictionalized Roy Cohn explains to a young protege.

Cohn should know. He is, after all, the direct line between Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump. As a prosecutor for the Rosenberg trial, young Cohn pressured witnesses to lie and conspired with the presiding judge to ensure the Rosenbergs were given the death penalty. Both Kushner’s fictionalized version and the unfortunately real Roy Cohn boast about his machinations and consider it one of his (their?) proudest achievements. He’s one of the people whose Jewishness, like Ayn Rand’s and Bernie Madoff’s, evokes a sad “Aw, man, why?” They won’t be in any Adam Sandler Chanukkah songs.

Cohn’s tremendous work with the Rosenbergs caught Senator Joseph McCarthy’s eye. He became McCarthy’s Chief Counsel during the Red Scare, where he and his mentor used the same integrity demonstrated during the Rosenberg trial. Cohn became a powerful, well-connected New York attorney until he was disbarred on charges of dishonesty, fraud, and deceit, and then died of a disease he insisted was liver cancer but happened to be treated with AZT, an experimental HIV treatment. In between all that, though, he found time to take a certain real estate mogul’s son under his wing.

In Angels in America, Roy Cohn’s protege is not Donald Trump. He is the fictional Joe Pitt, a Mormon from Salt Lake City who tries to maintain a code of ethics in the rough world of Washington politics. Sure, he breaks it routinely, but he demonstrates a sense of shame that the current president seems to lack. (Don’t get me wrong, both Joe Pitt and Donald Trump do reprehensible things, but Joe Pitt is a more complex and nuanced character.)

There is, however, one thing that unites all those men, the tale as old as time: a desperate need for approval from their fathers.

“Sometimes a father’s love has to be very, very hard, unfair even, cold to make his son grow strong in a world like this,” Cohn tells Pitt. “I’ve had many fathers, I owe my life to them, powerful, powerful men.”

The words are eerie now, almost prophetic, as Fred Trump and Roy Cohn have been described in pairs as “the voices inside Trump’s head” and “the men who gave Trump their brutal worldview.”

When the fictionalized Roy Cohn looks Joe Pitt straight in the eye and denies having cancer, despite telling Joe in the previous scene, it’s like Trump’s lying to America writ small. When Cohn asks Pitt to interfere with Cohn’s disbarment hearing he scoffs at Pitt’s revulsion: “’Unethical.’ Are you trying to embarrass me in front of my friend?… What the fuck do you think this is, Sunday school? This is the gastric juices churning…This is intestinal…This stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive. And you think you’re…What? Above that?” Pitt says he’ll think about it, but Trump would already be making calls and threats. It is politics.

Tony Kushner, who is currently working on a play about Donald Trump, has some big shoes to fill: his own. Will the ghost of Roy Cohn make an appearance in Kushner’s new play, the same way his fictional Cohn is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg? Or is that redundant, since Cohn and Trump are two sides of the same coin? Is this town big enough for Tony Kushner’s and Michael Moore’s and Shakespeare’s takes on Trump, and the conveniently timed New York productions of 1984 and Assassins? Most importantly, when will all this be over?

Angels in America opens with a Rabbi eulogizing Louis’ grandmother. The Rabbi didn’t know her, but knew her journey: a woman who “crossed the ocean who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania…You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that voyage is.”

Most likely, Angels in America will remain resonant in different ways, for different journeys, long after this presidency is over and even longer after the AIDS Crisis of the 80s. That’s the point of great art, and it doesn’t get much greater than Angels in America.

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Arielle Davinger is a writer who enjoys covering musicals, books, and comedy. She has previously written for Jewcy.