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A CurtainUp Review
The Boys in the Band
By Elyse Sommer
It would seem that revivals of Boys. . . have been made superfluous by its heirs which include major works like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Angels In America as well as those using the same basic template in a different time frame, like The Last Sunday in June and the British My Night With Reg — not to mention Crowley's own sequel, Men From the Boys. Not so.
Crowley's 1968 birthday party is still worth watching. It may be a period piece with its self-homophobic, low self-esteem characters who fortunately belong to another time. Still it gains new relevancy when seen within the context of its place in gay history as represented on stage and screen. And for all the political incorrectness, the bitchy zingers still register high on the audience laugh meter. In the light of today's highly evolved gay social milieu, the darker, tell-all confrontations dished up with the lasagna and birthday cake are prescient — especially so, given the Transport Group's auspiciously timed, smartly trimmed and intriguingly site specific staging.
Unlike its original lone wolf status as the first and only openly gay play in town, the just opened The Boys in the Band comes at a time when we have an unusual abundance of new works about gay life. Less than a week before I headed for the Transport Group's temporary home in a penthouse loft in Chelsea, a neighborhood with a large gay population, I saw and reviewed the new British play, The Pride, which explores a gay relationship circa an uptight 1958 and a freer but hardly problem free 2008. Adding to the piquancy between parallels in the relationship of The Pride's Philip and Oliver and The Boys in the Band's Hank and Larry, is the fact that the earlier play concluded its original 1000 performance run at the Lucille Lortel Theater where The Pride is currently running. The timeliness of the Boys. . . revival doesn't end there. A day after attending the penthouse birthday party, I saw Yanks, a musical romance that takes the gay experience even further back , to World War II. Also on the horizon: A return engagement of a historic gay romance, The Temperamentals and a Broadway transfer of Next Fall.
So how does this new The Boys in the Band balance its weaknesses with its strengths? As the original was an Off-Broadway hit without a big name playwright or actors, so the Transport Group', a small company with a budget to match, strikes up the band without any big box office names. The cast members are, however, l well credentialed and have the acting chops to bring these men with their varied but inter-connected stories of conflicted psyches and romances back to life.
The loft that now brings the audience right into the party is something of a gimmick and comes with a few sightline problems. However, it's a smart gimmick in that it somehow does give the production an up-to-date feeling and underscores that the more things change, the more problems remain — perhaps not quite the same, but just as troubling.
Director Jack Cummings III and his creative team have the audience seated thrust style around a sleekly furnished loft living room. A platform at one end accommodates the bedroom of host Michael (Jonathan Hammond) and his once a week roommate Donald (Nick Westrate). There's also a door leading to a bathroom.
Michael sets the scene, wordlessly tuning in to Judy Garland's "Almost Like Being In Love" and turning on the apartments numerous, pre-track lighting style lamps (to be turned off in a bookend finale). The intermissionless two hours that follow retains the rather slow to get going stagey business Crowley used to develop his comic but sad multiple character study. Even before the party gets under way we learn about Michael's Catholic guilt and drinking problem and Donald's frustrations with his analyst. That psychoanalysis is the first underscoring of what gives the play its the more things change change the more you can expect continuing problems context. Donald and other members of the group no longer seek out therapists promising a " cure" for their homosexuality (like the circa 1958 Philip in The Pride) but they do still need help in dealing with their sexual identities.
The action begins when the first guests show up: Hank (Graham Rowal) and Larry (Christopher Innvar) are a mismatched couple, again bringing to mind The Pride's Philip and Oliver who half a decade after Boys. . . are still dealing with conflicting relationship needs — Larry and the circa 2008 Oliver of The Pride, have sexual appetites unsuited to a monogamous relationship, while Hank and Philip have left conventional marriages but still need a similarly conventional commitment from their male lovers. The most stereotypical guest to arrive is super-swishy Emory (John Wellmann) and Bernard (Kevyn Morrow), the only black self-hater, who brings the issue of race to the table. (According to a recent interview by David Noh with Crowley, in Japan, a country which for some reason has been one of the play's greatest fans, Bernard has always been cast as a Korean.)
Rounding out the volatile friendship circle is Harold (Jon Levenson), the glum Birthday Boy who makes one of the play's most memorable stage entrances. Levenson evokes less the persona of a star Ziegfield Girl descending a neon lit grand staircase, than that of a somewhat ominous cross between a Fellini character and a B-Movie gangster. This dovetails with his gloomy pronouncements that culminate with his devastating denunciation of Michael as a pathetic man, who like it or not, will always be a homosexual. Since he's perched in one of the short aisles and thus apart from the living room where the party turns into the play's unsettling and most Albee-like game playing scenario, Harold now comes across as something of a prophet who seems to foreshadow the end of the self-loathing that is the bond between him and the other men.
Two other characters are Cowboy (Aaron Sharff) the blonde and not too bright boy toy Emory has rented as Harold's birthday present and Alan (Kevin Isola), Michael's straight friend from college. This production does nothing to make Alan less of a problematic character. The cause for the desperation prompting his phone call and subsequent unexpected appearance is never clarified. Even more puzzling is his hanging around even though he's clearly appalled by the scene. It easy enough to see why he relates to Hank, the most un-gay man in the room, and why Hank takes pity on his discombobulation so I suppose the best way to swallow his continued presence is to assume that finding himself in Michael's world has a hypnotic effect that sends him, like Alice, down the rabbit hole — a sort of reverse near exit from the closet he's in.
The acting is noteworthy mainly for the strong ensemble work rather than any single sure-fire award getting standout (Cliff Gorman won an Obie his Emory in 1968 and David Greenspan for his Harold in 1996). That said Michael's histrionic meltdown, and Donald's touching support are quite something. As Donald helps Michael to dry his tears for a light rather than overly melodramatic finale, so the smartly staged and timed production helps The Boys In the Band to once more lay claim its historic place in the gay theatrical canon.
Links to reviews of Plays Mentioned
My Night With Reg
The Last Sunday in June
Men From the Boys
Love! Valor! Compassion!
Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf