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Interfaith Couples and Relationship Issues in “Angels in America”

In HBO’s superb two-part production of “Angels in America,” one of the many themes playwright Tony Kushner touches on is interfaith relationships. In Kushner’s world of interlocking circles, interfaith partners recognize their religious differences but appear able to accept them. It is moral conflicts and relationship issues, as opposed to religious disputes, that drive people apart.   

The plot revolves around Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), a Jewish gay man who abandons his Protestant partner, Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) soon after Prior is diagnosed with AIDS. Lonely and hating himself for having abandoned Prior, Louis then becomes involved with a Mormon lawyer, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), who is in the midst of coming to terms with the fact that he is gay. Although Joe is married to Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), an emotionally unstable, pill-popping Mormon, he leaves her to move in with Louis. Joe is also involved in an intense, platonic relationship with a mentor, the Jewish Roy Cohn (Al Pacino).

When Joe and Louis begin living together, they get along well for a few weeks. But then one of Louis’ friends tells him that Joe is a protege of the notorious Roy Cohn–who prosecuted the Rosenbergs and served as counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy during his hunt for Communists. Louis does some research on Joe’s legal opinions and is outraged by what he finds. What repels Louis is that the opinions protect corporations and harm innocent people. The religious differences between Louis and Joe may have initially created a sense of distance, opened a wedge, but it is their ethical conflicts that drive them apart.

Similarly, Louis and Prior are very aware of their different family backgrounds, yet it is Louis’ inability to provide support and love at a time of crisis that separates them, not their religious differences. Although Prior wants Louis back, when he finally returns Prior feels compelled to reject Louis due to his earlier abandonment. Their different conceptions of the moral obligations of a friend and partner divide them.

And ultimately, it is moral differences that interfere with the friendship between Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt. When Roy arranges for Joe to be offered a job on a high-level government commission, the offer is contingent on Joe’s willingness to intervene and protect Roy when the commission investigates him. Joe refuses the offer.

In “Angels” Kushner also comments on more subtle causes of relationship problems. The play explores the limits of our ability to give to and support our partners, the point at which we want to take care of our own needs, and looks at how we live with those decisions. While the secular Louis is tormented by his abandonment of his partner, the devout Joe appears to feel no guilt at all. Although his religion has taught Joe certain rules, it apparently has not guided him to treat others with compassion. Louis, on the other hand, does not practice his religion, but he apparently has more, albeit flawed, compassion for his fellow human beings than Joe does. This offers illuminating commentary on the significance of religious observance. Kushner calls into question whether religious identity in itself is meaningful, or whether the ways in which a person lives spiritually and ethically are a better indication of character.

Kushner also looks at the interaction between power and powerlessness, and at our ability to turn things around. It is when Parker and Prior each assert themselves, demand to be treated with more respect, and reject their unloving partners that they begin to heal.

Clearly, in the world of Kushner’s play, none of the sexual relationships is particularly healthy; all are tormented. It is tensions over neediness and the ability to give, dependence and independence, and attraction and the lack of it that tear the couples apart. Religious differences or the lack of them are less significant than a couple’s ethical and emotional compatibility.

However, in what Kushner sees as literally a God-forsaken land, he appears to believe that humans have an ability to rise to fill the void, although this ability is limited. After abandoning Prior, Louis attempts to reconcile with him. And after saying no to Roy’s appalling request for legal intervention, Joe visits him in the hospital.

Tony Kushner presents us with a dark vision, yet one that illuminates the notion that with a bit of trust we are ultimately able to be there for one another in some fashion. This ability to support one another, though, is limited by our capacity to give, our ability to tolerate, and our unique moral compass.

Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.