Playwright Tony Kushner Comes Into the Light in PBS's 'Angels'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Such is the nature of celebrity in America that most people can cite three starlets who've spent time in the drunk tank but cannot come up with the name of a single person who's written an age-defining play.

Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock does her small bit to rectify this contemporary imbalance with "Wrestling With Angels," a warm and lively portrait of Tony Kushner, the stage-savvy powerhouse behind the Pulitzer-winning AIDS drama "Angels in America" and the three-hanky race-relations musical "Caroline, or Change."

For this 98-minute documentary, airing tonight on Maryland Public Television as an episode of the PBS series "P.O.V.," Kushner allowed Mock's cameras to follow him around for several years, starting with the unveiling of his 2001 play "Homebody/Kabul." That work, in development for some time before the events of Sept. 11, proved a prescient rumination on the alienation that the West has fomented in the Islamic world. And it is also emblematic of the complex fabric of political and social concerns that Kushner so articulately knits into his plays.

The film is an account not only of Kushner's artistic life, but also of his passionate immersion in left-wing causes. And although his fervor is entertainingly documented and perceptively revealed to inform the anger in his art, "Wrestling With Angels" might strike even some who side with him politically as wrapping itself at times a bit too worshipfully around its subject. That might be a function of the documentarian's style or of the access she gained. Still, you do wish someone of contrary views -- or at least some cultural distance -- might have been interviewed to provide some counterpoint to this provocatively self-assured dramatist.

Then again, we don't get to hear enough from playwrights of Kushner's caliber in our noisy, platitude-driven culture. In this country -- as opposed to, say, a more rhetorically adventurous society such as Britain -- the public platform given to a playwright feels grudging and intermittent (and reserved for truly big occasions, such as the opening of a new play). It's apt that the film begins with Kushner's address at the kind of event deemed acceptable for exposure to the thoughts of an American intellectual: a college commencement.

So if "Wrestling With Angels" is something of an unchallenged soapbox for Kushner, the defect ultimately is on the margins. Mock, an Oscar winner for her documentary on Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, shows herself to be an acutely observant fly on the wall. She elicits, among other things, some intriguing insights from Kushner and his father, Bill, about their relationship; the inspirations out of Kushner's own life, for everything from a character's acknowledgment of his homosexuality in "Angels" to the basement laundry room in "Caroline"; and the playwright's frustrations with the lukewarm critical response to some of his recent works.

Kushner reveals, for instance, his day-of-opening-night superstition: He has to sing all the way through Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." On the day late in 2001 that "Homebody/Kabul" opens in New York, we hear Kushner griping about the "most appalling, barbaric system" in which judgment is conferred on years of toil on a play:

"It all comes down to one person's opinion," he says, "and you're just sitting and waiting. I'd forgotten how absolutely horrific it feels." He's referring, of course, to the outsize weight of the review to appear the next day in the New York Times. (For the record, it was encouraging, but mixed.)

Mock's restless lens tells us many interesting things all at once, in keeping with the peripatetic spirit of its quarry. Kushner is filmed in what seems perpetual activity, walking here, there and everywhere, hailing cabs, typing, talking, jotting down lines. Although his Jewish wedding to Mark Harris is captured on film, shots of his home life are confined to his offices. The most affectingly personal moments come in a terrific sequence in Kushner's visit to his home town of Lake Charles, La.

Those who have seen the autobiographical "Caroline, or Change," written with the gifted composer Jeanine Tesori and set in Lake Charles, will form instant associations with the community. Others might be surprised to find that he grew up in the sticks, so far from what would seem his predestined habitat, Manhattan.

Kushner's childhood, in fact, was spent on the edge of a swamp -- with the occasional alligator as a visitor to the yard -- in what he describes as a "very liberal, progressive household." (His mother, an artist who became a local actress, died of cancer.) With his brother Eric (a musician) in tow, Kushner provides a glimpse of Jewish life in the Deep South, stopping at the synagogue in which he made his bar mitzvah and showing off the wall on which the names of his deceased relatives are enshrined.

The trip back home gives us a powerful sense of the regional flavors that nourished him. For a playwright who can be so incendiary -- as the film reminds us, one of his recent works concerns Laura Bush reading a passage of Dostoevski to dead Iraqi children -- the intimate portrait at his roots allows us to place him in a more endearing frame.

He is described early in the film as a "citizen of the world." "Wrestling With Angels" makes an even more convincing case for Kushner as a passionate patriot.

Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner (98 minutes) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 22 and airs Dec. 23 at midnight on Channel 26.

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