Watch “The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America” below, available through October 15, a 50-minute video written by Tony Kushner, and directed by Ellie Heyman, featuring Glenn Close, Paul Dano, Linda Emond, Jeremy O. Harris, Brian Tyree Henry, Nikki M. James, Laura Linney, Vella Lovell, Patti Lupone, S. Epatha Merkerson, Larry Owens, Andrew Rannells, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lois Smith, and Brandon Uranowitz.
This extraordinary video is something more than a selection of eerie, riveting scenes from Tony Kushner’s landmark seven and a half hour AIDS-era play performed by a starry cast. It’s a gorgeous lesson in the power of making connections.
There are the unlikely, lovely, loaded connections that the characters make with one another. In the first scene of the production (which is Act One, Scene 7 in “Millennium Approaches,” the first of the two plays of Angels in America), Prior Walter (Andrew Rannells) and Harper Pitt (Vella Ella) meet each other under the oddest of circumstances:
Harper: What are you doing in my hallucination?
Prior: I’m not in your hallucination. You’re in my dream.
One is a campy gay New Yorker with a new diagnosis of AIDS. The other is a pill-addicted Mormon transplant. They make a surprising connection with each other…while searching for spiritual connections.
That first scene, performed by two actors thousands of miles away portraying characters sitting right next to one another, illustrates the connections that the creative team makes between stagecraft and what we can call video craft.
The video art is at its showiest during the ten minutes when “the messenger has arrived” — four angels (Linda Emond, Nikki M. James, Patti LuPone and Daphne Rubin-Vega) whose faces morph and replicate and converge in a dazzling, dizzying, awesome display while they declaim lyrical pronouncements about America and “continental principalities” and “the virus of time” that sounded important, and made me feel stupid for not fully following. But even the more straightforward scenes are meticulous art directed. Nobody could mistake “The Great Work Begins” as just another Zoom reading.
The most important connect the production makes is between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Whoopi Goldberg makes an appearance in-between scenes to explain the similarities explicit (“the government failed massively and disgracefully”) before she makes a pitch for donations to amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which has created a Fund to Fight COVID-19. Later, Alan Cumming and Jake Gyllenhaal also talk about the connection and make the pitch. But the half dozen scenes themselves dramatize the same points. The final scene of “The Great Work Begins” especially drives it home. It is also the last scene of Perestroika, part 2 of Angels in America, set at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in 1990. The scene of people living with AIDS was defiantly uplifting at a time when many people still saw AIDS as a death sentence. Now, when Brian Tyree Henry as Prior recites the last monologue of the play —
“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away.” –
he is joined by dozens of voices and faces – a montage, we’re told in a title card at the end, “made by people across America impacted by COVID, and the ones they love.”