BWW Reviews: Browder Directs Proud Revival of THE BOYS IN THE BAND For Out Front on Main

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No matter how you look at it or how hard you work to parse the language of Mart Crowley's caustic, biting and witty dialogue into something uplifting and inspiring, The Boys in the Band is a hard pill to swallow-even if you need a valium, a martini or a joint (or any combination thereof) after the curtain falls on the 1968 dramatic comedy that is revived at Murfreesboro's Out Front on Main in celebration of Pride Month 2012.

There's not a lot to be proud of in Crowley's epochal play that made history as the first piece for mainstream theater to look at homosexuality with a clear, if assuredly off-putting, gaze. The playwright took off the rose-colored glasses that his character Emory would likely have worn to present a no-holds-barred examination of the modern homosexual's manners and sexual mores that now come across as a shocking blend of witheringly disdainful glances, the then-surprising and liberal use of expletives, and the evisceration of the modern gay man's voyeuristic and wanton interactions.

Crowley's comedy has been the source of controversy since its off-Broadway premiere-and its subsequent transfer to the main stem-what with his treatment of his subject, which in hindsight can be relegated to the ranks of theater about the self-loathing homosexual. Sure Tennessee Williams had dealt, however obliquely, with his fair share of gay characters; Gore Vidal's novel The City and The Pillar had been published some 20 years earlier (haven't read it? You should pick it up.); and playwrights from Oscar Wilde to Edward Albee had mined the depths of the homosexual lifestyle to provide thematic inspiration for many of their works. But Crowley was the first to put it on the Broadway stage in all its campy, Judy Garland-infused and drugs-and-alcohol-fueled "glory."

Certainly, it can be argued that The Boys in the Band provides a slanted and skewed vision of homosexuals (even that word reads "dated" in these enlightened times of the 21st century), but consider this: In 1968, it was downright courageous to lift the curtain and allow the heteros a glimpse into the "secret" world of the boys who loved boys. And the play's role in ushering society toward "gay liberation" cannot be discounted, coming as it did only months before the riots at New York's Stonewall Inn precipitated the start of the modern gay rights moment in 1969.

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I first read the script of The Boys in the Band in 1973, at 15-years-old (I bought the book that included the script at a book fair at my high school) and I was mesmerized by the characters, the situations revealed in Crowley's fiercely funny dialogue (which convinced me I had my work cut out for me if I were ever to engage in such bitchy banter-and generous chunks of his language found its way into my daily conversation from that day forward), and the heartbreaking stories told in the play. Yet, even as I was fascinated by this far-off, foreign world in which Crowley's characters lived and played, I was even then embarrassed by some of their antics, wondering where in this world would there ever be a place for me. The Boys in the Band, however, provided me with the dream of a bigger, brighter world outside the very small Tennessee town where I was growing up-even if my delivery of such pithy, idiosyncratic bon mots as "Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty" or "Spring: When a young man's fancy turns to a fanCy Young man" seemed rather incongruous and overtly queer for study hall conversation.

As a result, one must approach any production of The Boys in the Band with eyes wide open and with an appreciation of where the play falls in the history of the movement, in particular, and in contemporary theater, in general. There is no denying that it has historic value, even if the scenario and the characters make you cringe. In other words, I have great respect for playwright Crowley and his creation, I fully understand where it falls in our shared heritage and history, yet I cannot help but look at it now as a sort of gay-themed minstrel show, with the actors in garishly colored makeup rather than blackface.

Director D. Richard Browder brings the show to the stage with a definite perspective provided him by his own life experiences-and it is he who gives the most fully satisfying performance in the two-hour dissertation on the life of the unhappy homosexual, circa 1968. Browder's Bernard seems more heartfelt and genuine than any of the other characters (partly because he's clearly the most accessible, likable character in the mix) and the actor's clear understanding of the world in which Bernard moves.

Played on a serviceable multi-level set designed by Ryan Vogel (who also does double duty as Hank), the action of Crowley's play takes place during a birthday party for Harold (Peter Depp), "a pock-marked Jew fairy." The gathering of friends (however loosely that term is applied to the men involved), each of whom represents some archetypal gay male of the late 1960s, is a bitchy, campy festival of zinging one-liners and obscure pop culture references that keeps older audience members engaged, while quite possibly leaving younger viewers scratching their heads and googling on their smart phones until the cows come home in hopes of deciphering the script's arcane references.

It is essential that any production of The Boys in the Band in this day and age be presented as a period piece and Out Front on Main (a theater company that never wavers in the face of presenting cutting edge material, even if a play from 1968 hardly seems so cutting edge now, does it?) generally succeeds it keeping the period trappings apace with the action that transpires. However, there are moments when 2012 rears its untimely head during the show, but for the most part the late 1960s vibe fairly percolates throughout the action.

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Thomas Prunier leads the party posse as the self-deprecating, self-loathing Michael; Blair Thompson is the more down-to-earth and cerebral Donald; George W. Manus Jr. is the flirty, flitty and flighty Emory; Asa Ambrister is the seemingly promiscuous Larry (the aforementionEd Vogel is his live-in lover); Zach Parker is cast as the hustler Cowboy; Patrick Goedicke is Michael's interloping college chum Alan; and Depp, who is best known as a stand-up comedian and reality TV star (he's one of the leading characters in the most recent incarnation of The Sundance Channel's Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys), rounds out the cast with Browder.

Some of the actors fare better than others, although each man shows some promise of creating a believable character. Perhaps the most obvious cause for any lack of confidence and focus that is readily discernible (much of which can be ascribed to opening night jitters/exhaustion/miscues) is that some actors are simply cast in the wrong roles. In fact, you could take the same ensemble, give some of the actors different roles while keeping others in the very same ones in which they were cast and you'd have a completely different show, one which could possibly prove more successful, if no more entertaining and engaging than what was delivered on opening night.

Of course, the same could be said for almost any show you see on any stage anywhere at any point in time, but there you have it: a new theater game to play at intermission. Simply move the actors around on your game board and see what happens.

Another sticking point to be found in Browder's estimable work on the show-and the admirable efforts of his actors-is that most of the people onstage have no personal connection to the realities of being gay "in the early years," which sounds like the premise of "a very special episode of Blossom," doesn't it? Frankly, most of the men onstage came up in a world very different from the one created by Crowley for The Boys in the Band. And that's a very good thing, even if it makes it harder for the actors to truly grasp what their characters experienced.

The Boys in the Band isn't produced very often these days, so Out Front on Main's decision to present it as part of Pride Month is a noble effort, one that audiences would be advised to take in. Clearly, it gives perspective-both historic and hysterical-to where things stand today in a world in which even the President of the United States says two guys should be able to get married. How times have changed…

The Boys in the Band. By Mart Crowley. Directed by D. Richard Browder. Presented by Out Front on Main, Murfreesboro. Through June 17. For details, go to www.OutFrontOnMain.com; for reservations, call (615) 869-8617.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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