By CHARLES McGRATH
In characteristic fashion, Tony Kushner is doing too many things at once these days, and he’s late with a lot of them. In one more or less typical stretch last month, he was sorting through 60 boxes of his papers, inhaling dust mites in the process; working on a screenplay for Brad Pitt and finishing another, a new version of “West Side Story,” for Steven Spielberg; ...debating whether to rewrite his first play, “A Bright Room Called Day”; pondering one that might or might not turn out to be about President Trump; finishing the second act of an opera he is writing with Jeanine Tesori about the death of Eugene O’Neill; and vigilantly attending rehearsals of the National Theater’s revival of “Angels in America,” starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, which has moved from London to Broadway, where it opens March 25 at the Neil Simon Theater.
“It’s too much,” he said, sitting in his office in a subbasement in the West Village. Mr. Kushner, 61, is tall — surely the tallest major American playwright since Arthur Miller — and youthful-looking, and speaks softly but rapidly, as if rushing to keep up with a runaway brain. “But it feels to me like my life works this way,” he went on. “The more time feels open and unconstrained, the less realistic I am, and I start to get distracted by a million stupid things. I’ve always gotten everything I’ve done done in a sort of terribly pressured situation that I create for myself, usually because I missed three deadlines and it’s clear that if I miss one more I’ll be fired.”
Why Mr. Kushner is in a position to undertake so many projects is, of course, owing largely to the tremendous, transformational success of “Angels,” not just a Tony and Pulitzer-winning hit but a masterpiece, arguably the most important play of the second half of the 20th century. Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” it was a two-part epic, simultaneously realistic and visionary, fueled by moral rage about the Reagan era, the AIDS epidemic, and homophobia; the character of Roy Cohn (portrayed by Mr. Lane this time), the Red-baiting lawyer and political fixer, was a villain so monstrous and hypocritical that you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Mr. Kushner’s phone started ringing in the early ’90s, when word of the play began to spread. There were even people, he recalled, laughing, who wanted him to do a rewrite on the Flintstones movie. And yet “Angels,” though hardly a mixed blessing, has proved a difficult, if not impossible, act to follow. Ever since, some of his critics have complained that nothing afterward — plays like “Slavs!,” “Homebody/Kabul,” and “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” — has been nearly as good. Some of those same critics, and even some of his friends, also complain that he spends too much time writing for the movies instead of the stage. (His other produced scripts include “Munich” and “Lincoln,” both directed by Mr. Spielberg.)
“I don’t think Steven Spielberg is as great a filmmaker as Tony is a writer,” his friend Larry Kramer, the playwright and gay activist, said recently, “and I wish he’d go back to writing plays.”
Mr. Kushner used to be acutely sensitive to criticism, and was particularly wounded by the respectful but somewhat tepid response to his 2003 musical “Caroline, or Change,” written with Ms. Tesori. But he’s not in the least defensive about his movie work, saying that he enjoys it, that he’s learned a lot about storytelling from Mr. Spielberg, and that it pays the bills. (“Angels” earned him a nice sum at the beginning, but has not been the cash machine that some people imagine.) “I’ve never said yes to doing a screenplay that didn’t excite me,” he said, “and I haven’t worked with a bad director yet. Maybe if that ever happens, that will be the end of my screenwriting career.”
About “Angels” — and its place in the theatrical firmament — he’s mostly philosophical now. “Look,” he said that day in his office, “I understand that the first line of my New York Times obituary is going to be ‘author of “Angels in America.” ’ ” He paused and smiled. “But I also know that I’m going to get a New York Times obituary.”
He added: “I think I did a really good job. I think it’s a really good play, but I think it benefited enormously from its timing.” By that he meant that the play landed on Broadway just when treatment of the AIDS epidemic had begun to turn a corner and when America had elected Bill Clinton and shed itself of Reaganism, a word that Mr. Kushner still can’t say without sneering.
The play seemed to him so much of that time, in fact, that at first he was unsure whether he wanted to revive it again now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, and gay marriage, undreamed of by its characters, is both legal and commonplace. (A 2010 Off Broadway revival was much sparer than the London production.) “But what we found at the National was that it feels very much of the moment,” he said. “I had forgotten that the name of the epistle the Angel delivers is the Anti-Migratory Epistle, and there’s all that stuff about the environment and the world coming to an end.”
If anything, he added, the Roy Cohn character, who, though it’s not mentioned in the play, was once a mentor to Mr. Trump, had become even more menacing and relevant: “You can’t hear the things Roy is saying in the play about loyalty and not think about the Babylonian mud devil in the White House, who has no loyalty to anyone, not even to Roy.”
In some ways, “Angels in America” was almost an accident. It began as a commission from Oskar Eustis, then the head of the Eureka Theater in San Francisco. It was supposed to be a comedy about gays, Jews and Mormons, Mr. Eustis recalled recently, and he imagined it would last maybe 90 minutes. Instead it evolved into a two-part, seven-hour piece with 24 characters, eight acts and an epilogue. It has its funny moments, but much of it is harrowing, inspired in part by the AIDS epidemic and by Mr. Kushner’s own difficult and somewhat belated coming out as a gay man.
It didn’t happen until he was 26, he explained recently, and after he had even seen a therapist in hope of turning himself into a heterosexual. Between graduate classes at N.Y.U., he called his mother from a phone booth, just as the character Joe (played by Lee Pace) does in the play. “I said, ‘Do it now,’ ” he recalled, “‘or you’ll never have the guts.’ She cried for a week.” He went on, “I think the play is infused with a lot of the excitement and love and fear that that process entails.”
Now, 25 years after the first Broadway production of “Angels,” Mr. Kushner is middle-aged and happily married. (His wedding, to Mark Harris, a writer, editor and documentary filmmaker, was the first same-sex union to be announced in the “Vows” section of The New York Times.) He has become the de facto head of a large circle of friends, and has even taken up needlepoint — a hobby that seems ideally suited to what Ms. Tesori calls his “extreme passion for detail.” Even his punctuation is passionate, she pointed out recently.
Mr. Kushner said he is trying to be less of a “crazy horror” when it comes to dealing with directors. He has always been a compulsive rewriter, adding lines and even entire scenes at the last minute. And he’s famous for his notes — detailed instructions scribbled on yellow notepads — and his emails. “They’re legendary, the barrage of notes,” said James McArdle, the Scottish actor playing Louis, the most Kushner-like character, in the new production. “I once asked him the meaning of a three-word sentence and got back a 10-page email.”
Mr. Kushner is also famous for quarreling with practically every director he’s ever worked with. He even fired Mr. Eustis, one of his best friends. He screamed at George C. Wolfe, the director of “Angels” on Broadway, and he reduced Declan Donnellan, who directed the 1993 London production, to sobbing. Mr. Donnellan was so frustrated by a nightly onslaught of Kushner faxes that he agreed to direct “Perestroika,” the second half of the play, on two conditions: Mr. Kushner could not even be in the United Kingdom during rehearsals, and he could attend the second preview, but not the first, only if he sat in the audience without his pen and yellow pad.
But Mr. Kushner says that he isn’t nearly as bad as he used to be, and that Marianne Elliott, the director of this “Angels” revival, doesn’t know how lucky she is. “You have no idea,” he said to her after a rehearsal one afternoon last month. “You think I’ve given tons and tons of notes.” She nodded and gave a shy smile suggesting that, well, yes — there had been quite a few.
“I think Tony has slightly begun to trust the world and to trust the play more,” Mr. Eustis said recently. “A lot of his controlling impulses have come, first, from his not trusting that people would understand his vision. And, second, from his not trusting enough that the play is doing that work for him. That makes it very hard for him to sit back and say, ‘Oh, maybe there’s another way to think about that.’”
What makes “Angels in America” so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that “Perestroika,” the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, “Millennium Approaches,” was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of “Perestroika” in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food.
He has been tinkering with it ever since. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it,” he said recently. “I think it’s just a play that will always be available to a certain degree of moving things around. ‘Millennium’ hasn’t changed since 1990. There are some plays that are like that.” Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring. At one point he consulted with what he called a “Kaddish coach,” a Westchester rabbi, for help in a scene where two characters recite the Jewish Prayer for the Dead.
To all this fussing, Ms. Elliott has been a more than willing accomplice, and why they have got along so well may have less to do with his softening than with her being equally fanatic. She had never seen “Angels,” except in the 2003 HBO version, directed by Mike Nichols, but fell in love with the text, and cashing in on the clout she had earned with her acclaimed productions of “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” talked the National into letting her revive it.
Then she took a year off to prepare. She and Mr. Kushner exchanged hundreds of emails before they finally met. She showed up once at a breakfast restaurant in Bayswater with some notebooks that Mr. Kushner said reminded him of the Talmud. “There was text in the middle,” he explained, “and all around were these diagrams, with blocking and notes, little pictures pasted in. I took one look and I thought, ‘God, she’s as crazy as I am.’”
Ms. Elliott laughed, hearing that. “Was he a pain in the ass?” she said. “Well, we’re both obsessive, and I would say we both obsessed in our own little worlds. But you can talk to him. We worked out a way that I could say, ‘Well, this is what I think, and it’s up to you if you want to do something about it.’”
Asked whether he had mellowed, Mr. Kushner said, “Well, I’m trying. I watched my husband make this documentary based on his book ‘Five Came Back.’ It was a two-year process and somewhat complicated, and I watched him never get angry at anyone, never write 5,000-word emails lambasting the stupidity and imbecility of everyone. He behaved completely like a gentleman and got done what he needed to get done, and the results are spectacular. I’m not him, but I keep thinking I could do something like that.”
Still, you get the sense that with Mr. Kushner nothing is ever really finished and nothing is ever going to be easy. Mr. Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, told New York magazine in November that he was reviving “A Bright Room Called Day” next season, but Mr. Kushner recently described the play (set in Weimar Germany) as a learning experience with “maybe a few good things at the end.” Then again, he may be coming around. “I don’t know,” he said of a new production. “We’ll see.”
A recent casting call signaled that the “West Side Story” screenplay is done enough for filming to begin. Mr. Kushner said he’s recontextualized the songs in certain places but is “not changing a word of the lyrics.” Even so, he said, “I’ll be working till the last day of shooting.”
As for that Trump play — or play about the Trump era, at least — it’s in such an early stage he doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s meant to be about this moment, he said, but to describe what a moment feels like sometimes needs a couple of years’ distance.
The thing to remember about theater, Mr. Kushner concluded, is that it’s hard — not just for playwrights but even for the audience. “You have to show up — you can’t watch it from your living room. It’s not a commodity form. It will be different the night you’re watching it from every other night.
“You’re always aware of that,” he added. “You’re aware that you’re watching a bunch of people trying to remember their stuff — and part of your sympathy involves anxiety.”