Why does “Angels in America” still feel so relevant? It shouldn’t. A quarter century after its Broadway premiere, in the age of gay marriage and PrEP, Tony Kushner’s magnum opus on AIDS and the Reagan era should feel like a nightmare from which we’ve awakened. Watching it should be like looking back down a treacherous mountain from its peak, having successfully climbed and conquered it. And yet, Marianne Elliot’s stunning Broadway revival feels somehow both of its time and completely contemporary.
I watched both parts in an epic eight-hour theatrical marathon last week. (Even with two intermissions for each part, and a dinner break in-between, it was a physically trying experience that was entirely worthwhile.) A big part of why the show retains its resonance, as many have noted, is the election of Donald Trump. The closeted conservative legal crusader Roy Cohn, embodied to devastating effect by Nathan Lane in this production, was a mentor to our president. His presence and prominence in “Angels” becomes a captivating if terrifying link to the tone and toxicity of today’s politics. Meanwhile, when “Angels” premiered, AIDS was still an ongoing trauma in the gay community. Kushner’s beautiful gesture was to imagine those victims as prophets heralding a better time.
Had Clinton won the election, following two terms of Obama, we might look at “Angels” today and believe that, at least for much of the gay community, we had arrived at that time, that Kushner’s prophecy had come true. But though AIDS as a plague has been somewhat contained, at least in the United States, we look around and see plagues around us: opioid addiction, mass shootings, the international rise of nationalism and a protégée of Cohn who has brought Cohn's brand of ruthlessness to the White House. So instead of feeling like history, “Angels” now also feels like a modern allegory. Who are the new prophets among us?