WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2006
The Artist as Empath and
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
“It is an ethical
obligation to look for hope; it is an ethical obligation not to despair.”
As spoken by the playwright
Tony Kushner in a friendly, reasonable voice in “Wrestling With Angels,” Freida
Lee Mock's admiring documentary portrait of Mr. Kushner, those words sound like
basic common sense. If we want a better world, we'd better be able to imagine
Mr. Kushner has the imagination as well as the gumption
to put his body where his words are. A brief scene near the
end of the film shows him in Miami on the day of the 2004 presidential election helping
people vote after being turned away from their polling place.
Throughout the film his easygoing buoyancy contradicts
the clichéd image of the left-wing intellectual as a grim,
preachy commissar of political correctness. He is a welcoming public figure who
has a gift for being very funny and serious at the same time. Whatever his subject,
his words are usually accompanied by a playfully disarming grin. As much as he
knows about history, literature and Jewish culture, he never pontificates like
an academic know-it-all.
How we live in the world, Mr. Kushner says, depends on
our willingness to empathize with others. And empathy seems to come naturally
to this gay, Jewish playwright, now 50, who was born in New York, grew up in
Lake Charles, La., studied medieval history at Columbia, and won a Pulitzer
Prize for “Angels in America,” his epic play about AIDS in the Reagan era.
As informative as it is, “Wrestling With Angels” doesn't have time to do more than
scratch the surface of its fascinating subject. If you haven't seen “Angels in America,” the snippets excerpted from the Mike
Nichols-directed HBO movie of this visionary work barely hint at its substance.
Mr. Kushner mentions his admiration for Brecht's epic theater, which inspired
his first play, “A Bright Room Called Day,” but not at enough length to establish
a deep connection.
The excerpts from the autobiographical musical “Caroline,
or Change,” his collaboration with the composer Jeanine Tesori, are more
resonant, because that work's story of a Jewish boy’s embattled relationship
with his family's black housekeeper in Louisiana is more contained. Ms. Tesori
describes Mr. Kushner as a song lyricist who “uses language as the driving
“Wrestling With Angels,” which opens today at Film Forum in New York, is thematically structured as a three-act play, with
each act given its own portentous title. Act I, “As a Citizen of the World,” concentrates
on Mr. Kushner's
interest in global issues and discusses his play “Homebody/Kabul,” about Afghanistan, a historically prescient work that he began writing
well before the American invasion in 2001.
Act II, “Mama, I’m a Homosexual Mama,” focuses on his
involvement in the gay-rights movement and AIDS crisis, and
includes his personal coming-out story.
Act III, “Collective Action to Overcome Injustice,” explores his Jewish
heritage and includes scenes from his play on Jewish immigration, “Why Should It
Be Easy When It Can Be Hard.” One of the most touching scenes interweaves vintage
clips from a Nazi propaganda film of a production of Hans Krasa’s children's
opera “Brundibar” in the Theresienstadt concentration camp with scenes from a contemporary
production adapted by Mr. Kushner and designed by the author and illustrator Maurice
The documentary ultimately settles for being less than
the titles of its three acts imply. As it follows Mr. Kushner dashing around New York to various functions and makes a uick trip to his
country house in the Hudson Valley, it creates an entertaining, intimate personal
profile. We even hear about his 100-pound weight loss after writing “Angels in America.”
Mr. Kushner is forthright about his homosexuality, which he recognized at age 6
and struggled against into his college years. His father, filmed in Lake Charles at his 80th birthday celebration, candidly talks
about his initial difficulty accepting his son's orientation. He now boasts of
being “Tchaikovsky’s father.”
Although the movie shows Mr. Kushner's weddinglike commitment ceremony with his
partner, Mark Harris, gay marriage as a political issue is not addressed, nor
does the movie go into the history of their relationship.
“Wrestling With Angels” is best approached as an admiring portrait of a
likable, creative powerhouse at midcareer. No disapproving voices interrupt the
stream of praise for his politics and his art. Mr. Kushner’s place in the
history of American theater and in American culture, in general, is left unexamined.
These are subjects well worth exploring in another, deeper film.