Review: Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Why hello there, lovely readers. I have to admit I'm pretty bashful about writing this post for the obvious reason that it's been a long time since a review has gone up under my byline. That's been due to a string of real life annoyances that I won't bore you with, but I'm thrilled to be back, if still a bit self-conscious about my prolonged absence.

Anyways, today I'm delighted to be reviewing the magnificent Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner. Angels in America is mega-play composed of two distinct, but complementary, plays, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika.

I first read Millennium Approaches back in college and loved it, so I jumped at the opportunity to re-read it and to finally tackle Perestroika, which has been on my 'need-to-read' list for quite a while.

Although I have to admit I've struggled with how to adequately review Angels in America for the last few weeks. Why? For the simple fact that Angels in America is a masterpiece. Period. It's one of the most ambitious, funny, thoughtful, profound, and provocative pieces of literature you'll ever read. It's also one of the most important works of American drama ever written. So, frankly, you just have to read it.

But if I left my review at that, I imagine you might have any number of rightful questions such as "Um, okay...what is this two-part play thingie even about and what makes it so good?" So come and follow me over the jump as I try to explain just what I find so special about Angels in America.

The Plot and Characters

Angels in America chronicles the intersecting lives of several characters living in New York during  the mid-1980s. There's Joe Pitt, a straightlaced Mormon lawyer working in as a chief clerk in the Federal Court of Appeals. Joe is married to Harper, a housewife who Kushner charmingly describes as "an agoraphobic with a mild Valium addiction." Then there's the play's main protagonist, Prior Walter, a middle-aged gay man living with his longtime boyfriend, Louis Ironson. Louis, like Joe, works in the Federal Court of Appeals, albeit as a word processor (aka secretarial pool drone). Throw in two more central characters--the malignant Roy Cohn, a real life politico who Kushner imbues here with demonic presence, and the flamboyant, lovable Belize, a former drag queen turned nurse--and our stage is set.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches begins just as Prior reveals to Louis that he has been diagnosed with AIDS. As Louis grapples with the stunning revelation and its impact on his relationship, Joe is forced to confront the true reasons behind his own problematic marriage to Harper. Both relationships disintegrate and the characters, completely unknown to each other at the start of the play, become entangled in a complicated dance of heartbreak and jealousy. And if that's not enough, supernatural forces are at play here as well, with Prior plagued by visitations from a menacing Angel, and Harper imprisoned by delusions brought on by her pill-popping habit.

If the plot sounds complicated, that's because it is. There's a lot going on and, in the hands of any less a playwright, Angels in America would be a total mess. Instead it soars. The characters never sink into parody. They jump off the page as flesh and blood people, people with true vulnerabilities, people who you both root for and despise as they collide into each other and leave their mark. Taken as a whole, Angels' ambitious narrative arc works seamlessly, a remarkable feat considering that the full two-part play is a massive seven hours in length. So, Angels in America suceeds just as play with memorable characters and a fabulous plot. But that doesn't even take into account... 

The Overall Themes

Tony Kushner wasn't messing around when he added the subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, to his landmark play. Angels in America is very much an exploration of the unique tensions of the Reagan-era United States in which it is set--a time marked by a rightward swing in American politics, set against the raising LGBT movement and early AIDS crisis. 

These issues figure heavily within Angels and, yet, they are not the only ones at play. The number of themes that Kushner explores--and explores brilliantly--within his mega-play reads like a literary laundry list: morality, Judaism, Mormonism, homosexuality, marriage, religion, Communism, betrayal, love, honor, and racism, just to name some of them. That all these themes exist within the play and never feel forced is once again a testament to Kushner's talent as a playwright. I've rarely read a piece of literature that explores so much, so profoundly, in such a truly engaging and fun way. It's the type of play you could read again and again and see something new in it each time--a true sign of a great work. 

The Bottom Line

So since I've gushed rather profusely here, my overall review is surely no surprise. Angels in America is a literary masterpiece. I give it 5 stars out of 5 stars, although I'd gladly give it 20 out of 5 if I could. It's a wonderful piece of literature and one I couldn't recommend more highly that you read. Did I mention you should read it? :)

This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're curious about what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.


  1. Angels in America is by far my favourite play, and probably pretty close to being basically my favourite thing ever written ever. It is all these things you say and more and I love it to DEATH. Which is maybe not the best thing to say, in the circumstances.

    Have you seen the HBO miniseries of it? Because it's really really excellent, and I can't help imagining all the characters as the actors who play them now, but I don't mind because everyone was just PERFECT.

    Ok, I'm done now, promise. But, yay!

    1. Ooh! I've never seen the HBO special and have been wondering how it compared. You've totally convinced me to watch it. Just for blog research, really. ;-)

      So glad that you're a fellow true believer in Angels in America! Isn't it the best? I find it really hard to describe why it's so awesome ... it just is.

  2. Fantastic review! This is one of my favorites - I hope I'm able to teach it, someday. I read it for two different classes in college (one an American Drama course, the other an LGBT Lit course) and both experiences were great.

    1. Aww, thanks! What great fun it would be to teach - I hope you do get to teach it someday! I read it as part of a modern American lit class myself and had a great experience with it. It's fascinating how many different classes you could easily fit it in to - just another sign if its versatility and genius, I think.

  3. The book has such a beautiful cover and I really like what you've said about it too. I guess I should give this one a try! Thanks for sharing. :)

    Oh no, I can't believe I wasn't following you before... But I'm doing so now!

    Sarika @ The Readdicts

    1. Thanks for the follow, Sarika! So glad that you're going to give Angels a try - I promise you won't be disappointed. :)