Matt Crowley's dark comedy, The Boys in the Band, opened at Manhattan's Theatre Four on April 14, 1968, little more than a year before the Stonewall Inn fracas that launched the modern-day equal-rights movement for homosexual men and women.
It's difficult, of course, to prove a direct connection between the two events, but it can certainly be said that Crowley's play about eight voluble gay men--and one declared straight--at a birthday party represented the Manhattan homosexual at last daring to speak his name insistently from a stage only 14 months before roaring it in the streets.
Seminal occasions, of course, spur so many resultant developments that when looked back on, they can tend to seem antiquated, tame even. So it's possible to attend Jack Cummings III's local revival (only the second since the 1970 closing of the initial production and the first since 1996) expecting to encounter a museum piece.
Nothing could be farther from the truth--for several bracing reasons. The first is that for his Transport Group Cummings has refreshed the play's theatricality by setting it in an actual Flatiron-area loft at 37 West 26th Street. The pad is furnished with the esthetic appeal attributed to gay men and their knack for swanky interior design. To enhance the site-specific nature of his re-visit, Cummings and set designer Sandra Goldmark (did she shop at the near-by Gracious Home branch?) arrange the audience in rows throughout the pristine living-room--with raised bedroom area off to one side.
So while sweater-changing host Michael (Jonathan Hammond) and guests roam about declaiming Crowley's robust dialogue--never, needless to say, acknowledging the spectators--there's a ceaseless you-are-there frisson not unlike the current record-breaking staging downtown of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Audience members are simultaneously present--their reactions easily read--and, presto chango!, completely absent.
The plot, such as it is, has Michael planning to entertain icily controlled Harold (Jon Levenson) on his 32nd birthday with the help of swishy Emory (John Wellmann), at-loose-ends Donald (Nick Westrate) and self-deprecating African-American Bernard (Kevyn Morrow). Any hope of smooth sailing for this combustible crowd is thrown into a cocked hat, however, with the arrival of Michael's married and presumed heterosexual college roommate Alan (Kevin Isola). He enters during a boisterous line-dance several of the celebrants are doing to Martha and the Vandellas' 'Heat Wave."
Friction among the revelers--most notably between monogamous Hank (Graham Rowat) and non-monogamous Larry (Christopher Innvar)--is only heightened by on-the-wagon Michael's falling off the wagon and forcing the band-boys to play a nasty truth-telling telephone game. (Okay, an inebriated protagonist insisting on a game owes more than a little to Edward Albee's 1962 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Crowley's humor--what's sometimes known as "homosexual humor"--is probably the second most salient reason for the potent entertainment value The Boys in the Band still commands. Insults fly around the surroundings like knives hurled in a carnival attraction, many reflecting the insular language and mores of what at the time of the play's debut was still a heavily-closeted sub-culture.
Plays--ground-breaking plays, in particular--go through phases as they age. The Boys in the Band, written a decade before AIDS struck the homosexual community (and the rest of the globe), seemed out of sync with the times when revived in 1996. Then, it was unimaginable that a group of gay men could congregate without mentioning the epidemic's devastating attrition rate. Fourteen years on--with AIDS now accepted as a manageable chronic illness--an entire explosive evening transpiring without the AIDS specter looming is believable, never mind that game the men commit to without benefit of cell phones.
There is, though, an aspect of the play that's dated, or, at the least, dating--thank goodness. At its charged core The Boys in the Band is about nothing more nor less than internalized homophobia. Before the final fade-out in the now intermissionless, once two-act opus, Crowley makes it clear that mass-going Catholic Michael's turning on his witty brethren--as well as on male escort Cowboy (Aaron Sharff) introduced as a gift for Harold--originates in his inability to accept his sexuality wholeheartedly. His late plea that gay men not hate themselves, along with the line "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse," may have been accurate in 1968 (perhaps not), but it certainly no longer obtains across-the-board.
Nevertheless, Cummings guarantees that his actors breathe urgent life into all of Crowley's slick lines--an especially remarkable accomplishment considering they're often practically sitting in ticket-buyers' laps. The direction only flags in one specific, and it has to do with the staging choice. Because the actors are always threading through the audience and not always simply in front of it, focus is occasionally compromised. This means that Michael's descent from nervous sobriety to vicious drunkenness can seem unacceptably sudden for some audience members.
Other than that, there's no way to beat this Band.