BWW Review: Fifty Years of Changes Makes Mart Crowley's THE BOYS IN THE BAND All The More Intriguing
A younger playgoer knowing nothing about Mart Crowley's classic 1968 Off-Broadway comedy/drama The Boys in the Band except, perhaps, that its original run is regarded as an important landmark in depicting gay men on stage, might be shocked to witness the happenings these days at the Booth Theatre, which now houses the piece's premiere Broadway production.
There's none of the sweet yearnings for love as in Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG TRILOGY or passionate demands to be treated with respect as in Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART, two significant dramas of gay New Yorkers that would follow.
No, this pre-Stonewall play about gay men living in a time when their sexuality was regarded as a mental disorder and the phrase "self-loathing" was commonly attached to the supposed affliction, is often so coarse in its depictions of cocktail-fueled characters flaunting their bitchiness and using homophobic (and ethnic) slurs as both endearments and weapons that gay men have been debating for decades if the work's iconic status (the title is now instantly recognizable in American culture as a reference to homosexuality) promotes negative stereotypes or honestly explores them; especially since, in its day, The Boys in the Band on both stage and screen was so popular and so groundbreaking that for many straight people this peek inside the closet served as an introduction to "the gay lifestyle" and was influential in forming the public's perception of what was very much in those days a secret society.
So when the truly gifted director Joe Mantello, who is openly gay, assembles a pitch-perfect company of actors who are also all openly gay, for his fiercely charged and fearlessly honest production, there's a sense of reclaiming about the proceedings and of honoring those who came before them. Those whose social connections were not only frowned upon, but flat out illegal and may have felt their only defenses against emotional breakdown were a sharp wit and a tightly closed door.
At the center of the ensemble piece is campy, clever and alcoholic Michael, played with a terrific combination of pathos and smarminess by Jim Parsons. On an evening when he's hosting a birthday party for a pal and a few friends, Michael's apartment (a snazzy East 50s duplex designed by David Zinn) might, using a contemporary term, be regarded as a safe space, where the gathered guests can release all the truth they bottle up in the predominantly straight word and be themselves, or at least the image of themselves they prefer to project.
Michael's often-quoted credo, "You show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse," is not an attitude shared by his one-time lover and most intimate friend, Donald, played with supportive warmth by Matt Bomer.
Before the guests arrive, Michael receives a surprise call from his college roommate, Alan (uncomfortable and discomforting Brian Hutchison), who is in town with his wife and is pleading, for an unknown reason, for a chance to get together tonight. Sensing that the poor fellow is in tears, Michael reluctantly invites him to come over for a drink.
The evening's guest of honor is Harold (devastatingly droll Zachary Quinto), who describes himself as "a thirty-two-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy" and defends his lateness by sardonically declaring, "if it takes me a while to pull myself together and if I smoke a little grass before I can get up the nerve to show this face to the world, it's nobody's goddamn business but my own."
Larry (slick and hip Andrew Rannells) arrives with his "passing for straight" boyfriend Hank (Tuc Watkins), who is in the process of divorcing his wife. The two are having issues on the subject of sexual monogamy.
Also on board is the decidedly flamboyant interior decorator Emory (Robin de Jesus in a realistically over-the-top performance) and his buddy Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who is the only black character in the piece. While what we would regard today as homophobic slurs are used abundantly in a tongue-in-cheek manner throughout the play, there is also one instance of Bernard being referred to, in front of everyone, with the n-word.
A cute fellow only referred to as Cowboy (sweet and innocently charming Charlie Carver), arrives as a birthday present for Harold. He cost $20, which in 2018, translates to $143.99.
Foregoing a conventional plot, Crowley mixes the contrasting ingredients together and lets them simmer for a while. The full rolling boil occurs when Michael throws some real emotional danger into the proceedings with a game that requires everyone to make a phone call to a loved one.
There are adjustments to the script from the original, most noticeably the elimination of the intermission and the omission of some pop culture references that may not make the same impact fifty years later. This critic was sad to see that the mention of Cole Porter's "Down In The Depths (On The 90th Floor)" didn't make the cut.
Newspaper ads during the play's original run boasted quotes like "Screamingly Funny," and "Lancing Wit," perhaps luring in hesitant straight ticket-buyers with the promise of a jolly comedy rather than witnessing the self-reflections of members of a group their society has marginalized. While Mantello's immensely engaging production certainly isn't stingy with the laughs, the director also has the liberty to play to a more sympathetic public, allowing the sharp edges to occasionally soften, giving clearer views of what all that laughter was hiding.