The Reeler


October 4, 2006

Wrestling With Angels

For all the merits of its subject, Kushner doc overstocked with hagiography

If you believe the hype, playwright Tony Kushner is more than just a prodigious talent -- he's a saint, infusing his work with passionate pleas for continuing dialogue on the weighty issues of gay activism and Holocaust guilt. His scripts are renowned for surrounding such topicality with a nuanced approach to the theater dynamic, oscillating between moods of profane frustration and transcendent beauty. Audiences who shy away from ideological disputation may still find comfort in Kushner's command of the aesthetic realm, and even retain the thrust of his argument.

That's not the case, however, with the new documentary Wrestling with Angels, which documents Kushner's career through a series of public speaking engagements with a few brief interludes. Each scene highlights an educated artist who has earned his fame, which is fair fodder for a solid nonfiction narrative, but I can't help thinking that the oeuvre in question should speak for itself.

Director Freida Lee Mock opens with the New York run of Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, an angry send-up of post-9/11 patriotism. The play hits a nerve but doesn't erupt into headlines. It's interesting to see how Kushner insists on going ahead with the touring production, driven by an apparent altruistic sensibility. Because much of his work is dominated by Jewish or homosexual themes -- both prime factors in his personal life -- his ability to radically engage with an international discourse and not come across as a demagogue is admirable. Discussions of other Kushner projects are less successful (a behind-the-scenes look at Mike Nichols' adaptation of Angels in America might be better off as a DVD extra), although Mock wisely inserts a wealth of stage footage to give the uninitiated viewer an idea of the quality at hand. The fascinating collaboration with Maurice Sendak on Brundibar, which united a magical children's opera with the undercurrent of a Holocaust analogy, makes it clear why the two men enjoy working together: They share the notion that creativity is serious business, but neither goes long without making time for a smile.

If that sounds sort of cheesy, it is. For all the merits of its subject, Wrestling with Angels suffers from a predominantly hagiographic tone. Even when the plays tackle rough material, the mood is resolutely light. Kushner's proud father compares his son to Tchaikovsky, a double-headed comparison that raises the family's acceptance of Kushner's lifestyle and hints that documentaries like this one will one day be considered national treasures for their preservation of unprecedented art. Fine, but that doesn't guarantee an engrossing experience for us in the present.

Still, listening to Kushner endow audiences with his wisdom has its perks (like not having to force your way into his crowded appearances). Watching Kushner drift through his public life recalls Al Franken in this year's God Spoke; the playwright is much less belligerent, but the men share an electrified screen presence where they magically maintain upbeat energy in seemingly endless roomfuls of eager minds that cling to their every word. Kushner, with his signature curly black hair, pale face and toothy grin, is a perfect physical match for his nebbish personality. Friendlier than Woody Allen and less overtly vulgar than, say, Lenny Bruce, Kushner fills a niche in the unofficial canon of Jewish artistry with staunch individualism. But while Mock is so sure that niche is immovably brilliant, the documentary has no real sense of conflict. Fortunately, similar criticism can't be made of Kushner's work.

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