Since the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson, there are
several candidates to assume the mantle of the title "America's greatest
living playwright." If you want to go by success and money-making, then
Neil Simon may deserve the crown (although I would argue that his work
suffers from a certain ingrained schema -- that is, A doesn't like B but by
the end of the play they are married, in love, roommates, friends,
whatever. In my opinion, his output is merely a variation on the themes
in THE ODD COUPLE.) Besides, Simon is mostly known for writing
comedy, and as everyone knows comedy doesn't really have the heft that
drama does. (Okay, sarcasm doesn't always translate on the page.)
One of the leading writers deserving of the title, however, is
Tony Kushner, who like Miller does not shy away from leftist causes
in his plays and like Wilson is the voice for a disenfranchised group.
In a relative short time, Kushner has amassed a Pulitzer Prize, two
Tony® Awards, an Emmy and an Oscar nomination and various other
accolades. His best known play is the two-part ANGELS IN AMERICA,
which was adapted into an acclaimed HBO miniseries, but lately
he has branched out to include screenwriting, collaborating on MUNICH,
and working in the musical idiom with an adapted libretto for the
children's opera BRUNDIBAR and the autobiographical Broadway show
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. With the exception of the film, many of
these works, as well as others, are on display in Freida Lee Mock's
profile WRESTLING WITH ANGELS: PLAYWRIGHT TONY KUSHNER.
Mock won an Oscar for her documentary on architect Maya Lin,
and she trains her camera on Kushner over the course of three years.
She structures the film like a play with a prologue, three acts and
an epilogue. It follows the writer in various aspects of his life and
career, as he travels throughout Manhattan and later makes a visit
to his hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with Kushner, the film provides
a positive profile of the writer -- a leftist homosexual who doesn't
shy from taking on controversy in his works. He appears almost
prescient in having written a drama about Afghanistan,
HOMEBODY/KABUL, before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001
and he takes fervent stands -- such as an anti-war one which leads to a
book project and a play-in-progress with Laura Bush as one of the
characters. The First Lady appears reading her favorite book,
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV to apparently dead Iraqi children in
ONLY WE WHO GUARD THE MYSTERY SHALL BE HAPPY. (Actress Marcia
Gay Harden is seen performing a snippet of the scene.)
If one is familiar with Kushner, though, there really are no
surprises. Mock covers his childhood in Louisiana, the death of his
mother, the struggle of his father to accept his son's homosexuality,
his commitment ceremony to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY editor Mark
Harris (which was one of the first same-sex unions reported after
changes in policy at THE NEW YORK TIMES), and various productions
of his plays.
Had the FCC not cracked down on ridiculous things like
language, the film might have found its best outlet on public
television. As it stands now, perhaps one of the cultural channels
might pick it up as an ancillary outlet.
WRESTLING WITH ANGELS has several weaknesses: for
instance, Kushner's relationship with Harris is not portrayed prior
to their union. There are virtually no critical voices in the piece.
As much as I like and admire Mr. Kushner's work, I know for a fact
that there are many who don't. It may have presented a more
balanced picture to include some of them. Instead, the film has
a faint whiff of hagiography about it.
In general, the movie presents a very personable and even
likable writer who seems to be at the height of his career. Still,
there is little context for where he stands in the pantheon. In other
words, that mantle of "America's greatest living playwright" may
still be up for grabs.
Running time: 98 mins.
MPAA Rating: NONE
|Wrestling with Angels:
Playwright Tony Kushner
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.