Harris assures me that the rushing streams of talk are not always so high-minded: “He’s surprisingly able to ask, ‘Is there another Project Runway on tonight?’ without its leading to a discussion of the Aeneid.” Maybe so, but the pressure of people seeking wisdom and a million other things from Kushner seems to have overprimed the pump.
“And the LGBT community, what are they, we, looking for?” Kushner continues. “Yes, we’ve been asked to wait a very long time, asked to eat oceans of shit by the Democratic Party; we’ve been 75 percent loyal for decades without a wobble and without a whole lot of help from these people. And it’s important that somebody keeps screaming; the trick is how do you scream, and who do you scream to? If we’re dissatisfied with these Democrats, let’s get better ones instead of fantasies about mass uprisings that are going to resemble the October Revolution. Yes, it might sometimes feel good to throw the newspaper across the room. There’s much criticism of Obama that’s legitimate. He backs down on things, he waffles, like on the mosque, and you wince. And I consider his decision to appeal the Federal court ruling abolishing DADT to be unethical, tremendously destructive, and potentially politically catastrophic. But is Obama really supposed to say, as the first African-American president, that same-sex marriage is his first priority? Clearly he believes in it; he’s a constitutional scholar. It’s not conceivable to me that he believes that state-sponsored marriage should be unavailable to same-sex couples, even if he has religious scruples. But do I think he should have lost the election for the chance to say he supported same-sex marriage? No. Given that we would have had John McCain and Sarah Palin, I would have said, ‘Say anything you need to.’ So if he’s moving very cautiously, with two wars he’s inherited and a collapsing global economy and the planet coming unglued—Okay!”
In Angels in America, Kushner basically clobbers the moral relativism of his stand-in, Louis Ironson. Played on Broadway by Joe Mantello (and in the revival by Zachary Quinto), Louis is a logorrheic gay Jew who leaves his lover the moment the lover shows signs of AIDS. This unpardonable, though hardly unthinkable, betrayal puts him in the doghouse for some six hours of stage time. Mantello, who asked to be dressed in hooded sweatshirts and vintage overcoats like those Kushner wore, says he could feel the audience turn on him—as much for Louis’s cowardice as for his relentless justifications. To hear Kushner, who gave the best lines to the character eviscerating Louis’s defense, offer a brief for patience and compromise is a bit of a shock. Has the man who wrote those blistering scenes—not to mention A Bright Room Called Day, which offers a straight-faced comparison of Reagan to Hitler—mellowed?
“I find this particular play very frightening, because I don’t feel in control.”
Yes and no. He now considers A Bright Room Called Day—about the “tragic failure” of socialism in Weimar Germany—an “immature play.” And while the “self-discipline and regulation” of mature artists like Haydn and Trollope remain somewhat beyond his grasp, he has made a connection between personal and political disorder. “The older I get, the less I see chaos as the goal of anything.” What he feels he has attained, at this “crossover moment” in his life, is a “more complex worldview, with more interesting doubts and confusions.” He is, he says, less angry and more forgiving, and better able to express both in his work.
He is certainly more comfortable with himself. He used to gnaw at his talent as if it were a manacle. Now “he’s made peace with it,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public and Kushner’s longtime “comrade.” “He’s still tortured, of course, but not the way he used to be. His marriage has been very good for him in that regard”—even if his public appearances have sometimes left Harris feeling a bit like Pat Nixon, “waving benignly while sipping from a hip flask.”
Kushner’s public appearance has itself changed. The Jewfro of his first fame is now cropped tight; with the help of Weight Watchers, he has dropped and kept off the extra pounds that once made him look less imposing than, at almost six-foot-two, he really is. Still, he mitigates the effect of his beaky, high-domed, El Greco bearing with touches of camp applied like beauty spots. He bats his eyes, refers to his (male) “girlfriends,” plays peekaboo with intimate details. Then he flips right back to Thanatos and the Wobblies in beautifully parsed paragraphs. The alternation is so deft and funny it seems planned, a costume of casualness like his name. (He was born Anthony Robert Kushner.) You can almost read the stage directions—which is not to say he is false. Rather, he’s theatrical: a man of the theater. Serious past anyone’s requirement, he is also in every sense playful.