“He wishes I was being ironic,” Eustis adds now, “but I wasn’t.”
The switch, and others like it, established Kushner’s reputation as a tiger in the guise of a pussycat. The reputation isn’t quite right; his sweetness is no less genuine than his fierceness, though it took a while before the fierceness (like his gayness) came out of the closet. When the playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin met him in 1984 at the New York Theater Workshop, where he was associate artistic director and her play The Narrow Bed was in production, Kushner was so modest she couldn’t get a bead on him. “I asked him what he did,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘I sort of do plays and have this company,’ and I thought, How sweet. Then he showed me A Bright Room Called Day and I thought, Oh, fuck, he’s a genius!”
At the time McLaughlin had a little more clout than Kushner, and helped him get an agent. Later, when cast as the titular semi-deity early in the development of Angels, she was able to watch the Eustis drama, and many others, play out as if from above. “The promises you make when you’re in the happy thick of a great rehearsal process are not always promises you can keep,” she says. “And sometimes if you can keep them, it hurts the production. The thing about Tony that anyone who’s ever worked with him knows is that he’s simply not afraid of hurting people or pissing them off, because his dedication to the work is absolute. I admire that, but I’ve watched people suffer for it, and have been winged a few times myself. He gives notes that are difficult to hear or take in, he sheepdogs directors until he gets them to do what he wants”—true to form, he has attended almost every preview of the Angels revival, offering sheaves of opinions. “And radical rewrites come in far, far past the tolerance of a cast—some on the last preview, thank you very much! But then you look at the rewrite and it’s, well, brilliant, so what are you going to do?”
“Too many of us on the left believe that politics is an expression of personal purity.”
McLaughlin, like others who “became inessential to his work,” bears no malice toward Kushner. Rather the opposite: She misses his “remarkable company,” the “fireworks display of his mind,” and even the harness and twenty-pound wings that once let her fly onstage. Playing the Homebody in Seattle was “the most amazing thing I’ve ever gotten to do as an actor,” she says. “I suspect the reason no former colleague speaks with much bitterness about Tony,” she adds, “is that the good times were just too good to be completely poisoned by whatever happened after.”
And yet the irony is too rich—too Kushneresque—to leave at that. “Tony writes a lot about accountability,” says Mantello, who remains an unreserved admirer. “It’s almost poetic that it’s the thing that keeps him up at night. How am I going to be accountable to my collaborators? The dilemma is a human dilemma and the contradiction is in all of us. But it’s more acute in artists with superhuman standards like Tony. And what happens when your life’s work is about community but you have these other things inside of you that contradict what you’re writing about? Didn’t it blow your mind to find that Arthur Miller had a son he put away? A recent biography revealed that the author of All My Sons—a play about man’s responsibility not only to kin but to all humankind—institutionalized his Down syndrome son at birth and never spoke of or to him again.
Well, Williams was a pill-popper, O’Neill a drunk, Brecht a womanizer. By the standard of the modern playwrights in his own pantheon, Kushner really is a saint: the soul of probity, kindness, and social engagement. And though he has certainly lost friends, he seems to have spent his professional life seeking to disprove Auden’s dictum that real artists aren’t nice: “All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.”
To the extent he has succeeded it is because there is such an extraordinary amount of feeling to begin with. It spills over the banks of the plays. He has compared the process to making a proper lasagne: “All the yummy nutritious ingredients you’ve thrown into it have almost-but-not-quite succeeded in overwhelming the design. A play should have barely been rescued from the mess it might just as easily have been.” What some critics find overstuffed and argumentative, others find rich and, in its refusal to dictate answers, humane. “The idea isn’t to hector people,” Kushner says. “I don’t know how to get out of the morass, either. I just know that there’s a great deal of value in not running away from it. That’s why we made this weird activity”—theater. “So we could find social occasions to encounter these things. If you have value as an artist it’s probably going to be in your capacity to let things inside you get past things that are placed there to keep you from telling the truth. The more you see things as clearly and coldly as you can, the more value you’re going to have.”