Angels in America
Perestroika, Act Three
(Act Three is subtitled "Borborygmi, The Squirming Facts Exceed the Squamous Mind")
In his hospital room, Roy argues with someone on the phone, refusing to turn over his records to the disbarment committee. Ethel enters and watches him silently. Belize comes in and tries to give him pills, but Roy refuses to hang up the phone, then throws Belize's pills on the ground—he has his own supply now, he says. He periodically talks to Ethel, whom Belize cannot see. Belize is impressed by Roy's AZT stash, and then demands ten bottles of him. Even though Roy could spare them, he refuses, saying he hates Belize and hates his sense of entitlement. They fight, insulting each other bitterly. When Belize calls Roy a "greedy kike," Roy agrees to give him a bottle. When Belize leaves, Ethel tells Roy she is going to watch his disbarment hearing tomorrow.
Hannah enters the Diorama Room of the Mormon Visitor's Center with Prior—he is conducting research on angels, he says. Prior and Harper talk before the diorama show begins. They both almost recognize the other. The lights dim and the show begins—the story of a Mormon family migrating west. In the show, only the father, who is played by Joe, moves; the two sons have off-stage voices, while the mother and daughter are silent. Harper greets "Joe" and makes catty comments during the presentation. Louis suddenly appears in the diorama, and he and "Joe" argue about how Joe, a serious lawyer, can be a Mormon. When he sees Louis, Prior naturally thinks he is losing his mind. Harper says casually that "the little creep" is in and out of the diorama every day, but she cannot figure out what he has to do with the story. Louis and Joe keep arguing about Mormonism, and then they leave together. Harper closes the curtains of the diorama, and Prior starts to cry. Hannah hears the noise and storms in, but when she opens the curtains the father-mannequin is a real dummy—Harper and Prior have imagined everything. They stare at each other, very close to recognizing one another from their dreams. Finally, Prior leaves, and Harper begs the Mormon mother dummy to give her advice. The dummy comes to life, and the two women leave together.
Sitting on the beach together, Louis tells Joe about how gay men used to cruise each other in the sand dunes even in wintertime. Their talk turns to Joe's Mormonism, at which Louis is still shocked. Joe tells Louis he loves him, but Louis brushes him off, and says he wants to see Prior again. Joe is crushed. To prove his love for Louis, he begins to remove his temple garment, special underclothes he wears as an observant Mormon. He regains his composure and tells Louis he needs to leave Louis in order to obey his self-interest, and that after he does so, he will come back to Louis.
Belize wakes up Roy to take his pills. Drugged on morphine, Roy is delusional, and tries to seduce Belize, begging him at the same time to squeeze the life out of him. Roy asks him what the afterlife is like, and Belize says it is a city like San Francisco, full of vacant lots, streamers and dances and racial impurity. Roy thinks he is talking about Hell. When Belize replies that it was Heaven, Roy is suddenly suspicious and scared. Belize leaves him to his paranoia.
Harper and the Mormon mother walk on the harbor promenade in Brooklyn. Harper asks her how people change, and the mother describes a filthy, painful, difficult process. Meanwhile, Louis leaves Joe alone at the beach. He calls Prior at home and asks to see him.
Even in his weakened state, Roy is still powerful and dangerous. Scene One averts the possibility that the audience might come to see Roy as a lovable grump or as rascally but essentially harmless. His assaults on Belize cannot be explained away as the ravings of a sick man—they are brutal, merciless and cruelly intelligent. The word "nigger" leaps off the page. So does Roy's refusal to part with even the smallest portion of his drug horde, his implicit equation of Belize with stereotypes about African-Americans and welfare. Worst of all, he succeeds in baiting Belize to sink, even briefly, to his level. It is only when Belize calls him a "greedy kike" that he parts with a bottle, a precious reward that only partially compensates for the loss Belize sustains of even more precious dignity and goodness. After this scene Roy can only be considered genuinely hateful. This is important for it helps explain Ethel's fixation on Roy more than thirty years after her death, and adds to Roy's own complexity—the sincere feeling of rejection he voices to Ethel at the end of the scene is more interesting and surprising when contrasted with his demonic potential. Most of all, it raises the stakes for the following act, making Belize's ultimate forgiveness of Roy all the more impressive and morally resounding.
For all its seriousness, Scene One has a strand of dark humor that becomes full- bodied comedy in Scene Two. As Prior and Harper watch the show, Louis appears suddenly in the diorama scene and carries on a seemingly private conversation with Joe, but their ex-lovers can both overhear them. The scene has several individually humorous elements that combine for intense effect: Harper's sarcastic asides during the show (which is ironically funny even on its own); her bland disregard for "the little creep" coupled with Prior's hysteria, which echoes the audience's own surprise at Louis's appearance; Louis and Joe's conversation, especially Louis's overreaction to Joe's Mormonism; and Hannah's perennial curtness all combine to riotous effect.
But this scene and others like it are not designed simply for comic relief. For a "serious" Broadway play, Angels in America is refreshingly funny—Louis's teasing of Joe in their first encounters, his political debate with Belize, Harper's mystified dialogue with Prior in their mutual dream sequence are all written to get big laughs. The humor, however, does not rely on comic staples like slapstick, put-downs and throwaway one-liners. It is character-based humor: Louis and Hannah are only funny in this scene because their actions provide such exaggerated confirmation of their personalities as we have come to know them. More importantly, it is a humor laced with a bitter realism. Prior's hysteria makes us smile, but to him it is genuinely painful. Harper drifts in and out of near-madness. The humor is linked to profound emotions, making it both funnier and integral to those emotions' portrayal. When the audience laughs at something that is genuinely painful for the character on the stage, the audience's relation to the material deepens significantly.
At the end of the scene, Harper leaves with the Mormon mother, whose character underlines the difficult lot of women and the sexism of Mormon (and American) society. As Harper points out, she and her daughter have no voices, and only the father dummy has moving parts. It is a literal, uncomfortable depiction of Mormonism's rigid hierarchy, helping us to understand the considerable pressure Harper herself must have faced in Salt Lake City. The women are imagined as cheerful, self-effacing, and silent. It is a cultural fantasy that appeals strongly to Harper: she sits briefly in the mother's seat, longing for the comforts of a "perfect" family, but it is only a diorama, not even a particularly realistic-looking one. When the Mormon mother speaks, particularly in Scene Five, her words illustrate the unimaginably painful reality of real pioneer women's lives. By allowing her to speak, Kushner metaphorically empowers all silenced women—although the technique is transparently obvious and un- subtle.
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