I ripped the cast recording of Rent from my parents' CDs last weekend (I only have it on tape), and listening to it reminded me of Angels in America and the two posts I've been intending to write on it since forever, or at least since December 2003 when we got HBO just to see its adaptation. (They're both about New York and AIDS, they both are structured in two parts with the first part being considerably the better, and I saw them both performed while I was in college.)
In very brief, for context, Angels In America is a two-night play (the parts are Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) set in 1985 New York. I would argue that at its core, it's a two-couple story, or more accurately a two former-couples story: Louis leaves Prior because he can't deal with Prior's AIDS, and Joe leaves Harper because he finally admits that he's gay. The four of them interact in various ways, as do people they know (Belize, Prior's nurse and friend; Hannah, Joe's mother; and Roy Cohn, Joe's mentor), an Angel, and some ghosts.
The first post I've been meaning to write is about the HBO adaptation (released on DVD some time ago), which is star-studded and well-intentioned. The acting is almost uniformly impeccable: Mary-Louise Parker (Harper) and Patrick Wilson (Joe) are particularly heartbreaking. Justin Kirk looked a little more saturnine than my image of Prior Walter, which might have contributed to Chad's finding him less sympathetic than I, but I found his acting excellent; and though Al Pacino (Roy Cohn) chewed scenery until I expected to see splinters flying out of his mouth, it's that kind of role. The only performance that clunked was Emma Thompson's as the Angel and as a nurse; the first is probably not her fault, as the Angel seems an absolutely thankless role. (I can't compare her performance to the actress I saw in Boston, because the production had the reverb on her lines up so high it was almost impossible to tell what she was saying.)
For all the glossy production values and high-powered acting, though, I suspect that this is best seen on stage. For one, it's an incredibly and fundamentally talky work, which might feel more accessible with the intimacy of live theater. For another, suspension of disbelief is easier in theater, since one's already suspending disbelief in accepting a stage as New York City or what-have-you, and the work has a number of surreal elements which require such suspension (dreams and visions and hallucinations, sometimes shared and sometimes experienced alone; also, there's that matter of an Angel).
(Then again, maybe not. On screen, the first shared vision starts with Harper walking down a long, long hallway and entering an opulent dressing room already occupied by Prior (I think; it might have been the other way around). Chad, who hadn't seen it before, wondered how this was done on stage, thinking it would be difficult. On the contrary, nothing simpler; just re-arrange the set to be a dressing room on a scene break, and then the stage direction: "Harper appears." I think she just walked on from off-stage, when I saw it.)
Whether or not the surreal elements are easier to accept on stage, I generally preferred the stage's approach to these elements. In particular, the screen version took the repeated Part One statements that the Angel was drawing nearer, and literalized them into images of a meteor hurtling through space. This struck me as rather a dubious decision.
There were a couple of other changes that I disliked, a line reading here, an intrusive camera trick there; but by far the most significant and baffling was the change to Part Two's opening. Part One ends with the Angel crashing through Prior's ceiling and declaiming:
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived.
It is something to behold, whether on stage or screen.
Part Two, in the play, opens with—well, with a thematic monologue from the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, but then with the Angel's speech above and Prior's furious, frightened reaction: "Go away."
It is also a stunning moment, and it's not in the HBO version. It would have taken less than a minute; I cannot fathom their being so strapped for time that they couldn't have left it in. (I don't remember whether they kept the Bolshevik bit; I think not.)
There is also a fair bit of streamlining to the second part, which as I recall means that nearly all the shared visions in that section were dropped in favor of providing that information in other scenes. I have no particular opinion on this change.
While I generally prefer the stage, I think that overall the HBO version did a very good job; the majority of my negative reactions upon watching weren't to the production, but the content of the second part. That's the second and spoilery post I've been meaning to write, hopefully appearing tomorrow: the fundamental flaw of Angels in America.
Amazingly belated ETA: well, it only took me six years, but the promised post is finally up.