BWW Review: Zeitgeist Stage Strikes Up the Band with Gusto

BWW Review: Zeitgeist Stage Strikes Up the Band with Gusto

The Boys in the Band

Written by Mart Crowley, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller; Costume Design, Tyler Kinney; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Fight Director, Danielle Rosvally; Stage Manager, Kayla Morello

CAST (in order of appearance): Victor Shopov, Diego Buscaglia, Mikey DiLoreto, Gene Dante, Bob Mussett, Damon Singletary, Brooks Reeves, Richard Wingert, Ryan Landry

Performances through October 3 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.ZeitgeistStage.com

Maestro David J. Miller raises his baton to conduct The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's groundbreaking 1968 play about a coterie of homosexual men at a birthday party, where the knife used to cut the cake is the dullest and only one of many being figuratively brandished in the room. Marked by scathing humor and cutting remarks, Crowley's fast-paced dialogue sharply outlines each character, and the estimable nine actors of the Zeitgeist Stage Company production provide the heart and soul to bring them realistically to life. At the intimate Plaza Black Box Theatre, the viewing experience is up close and personal and not for the faint of heart.

The Boys in the Band is the third play in three years chosen by Artistic Director Miller from the catalogue of 20th century gay dramatic literature (Bent - 2014, The Normal Heart - 2013), but arguably the most relatable of the three to a wider audience. Although all but one of the characters are gay, their flaws, identity struggles, and relationship issues are universal to the human condition. Heterosexual couples deal with infidelity, heterosexual men and women go into psychotherapy to overcome their childhood traumas, and everyone can relate to the concerns of getting older in a society that worships youth. The fact that Crowley populates his play with homosexual men gives a specific context to these challenges, but, at a time when gay characters were seldom represented in the mainstream, he cleverly raises awareness of both the differences and similarities between their world and the conventional one.

Miller sets the stage to transport us to an Upper East Side apartment in New York City in 1968 with his tasteful scenic design featuring many artifacts of the day (e.g., notice the "World Book Encyclopedia" on the bookshelf, the corded dial telephone, and 33 rpm record albums). Sound designer J Jumbelic swirls us into a time warp with music of the era, including "Where Do I Go" (Hair), Lesley Gore's "It's My Party," and "Let It Be Me" (Nancy Sinatra's cover of The Everly Brothers hit). Wide belts and form-fitting shirts with big collars reflect the fashion trends, but costume designer Tyler Kinney hits a home run with the chocolate brown, double-breasted jacket with flouncy orange pocket handkerchief worn by Gene Dante's character Larry. Michael Clark Wonson guarantees that all of the action occurs in bright light, but for the arrival of the birthday cake topped by a solo (faux) candle.

Michael (Victor Shopov) is hosting the party for Harold (Ryan Landry) and five of their friends: Donald (Diego Buscaglia), a self-described failure; Emory (Mikey DiLoreto), an over-the-top flamboyant queen; Hank (Bob Mussett) and Larry (Dante), the only couple in the group; and Bernard (Damon Singletary), an African-American bookstore clerk who seems like a nice guy. An unexpected guest is Michael's straight college roommate Alan (Brooks Reeves) who shows up with a pressing need to talk to his old friend, but is unaware of the latter's lifestyle and gets a rude awakening. A peripheral presence is a hunky, but dense, young cowboy (Richard Wingert), who is Emory's birthday present to Harold.

Although he is on the wagon at the beginning of the evening, alcoholic Michael takes a giant leap off of it as the party progresses, bullying the others into playing an emotionally dangerous game and pushing buttons that Alan doesn't even know are there. The tension builds until it is so thick that you can cut it with a knife, but most of the wounds received are of the emotional variety. After the damage has been done, Harold steps in to put Michael in his place. He is the only one who can rein him in, partly because of their shared friendship and partly because Harold is arrogant and not afraid to tear down Michael's invisible fence.

Shopov delivers another in a string of fine performances at Zeitgeist under Miller's direction. He is like a cat sharpening its claws on the furniture, only Michael shreds people instead of sofa cushions. When he is on the attack, Shopov has an evil glint in his eyes; when the tables are turned on him, he freaks out and falls apart, collapsing into himself in a toxic pool of anxiety and despondency. Watching him be vulnerable after his earlier behavior is an unexpected treat. Capping a restrained performance, Landry coolly delivers the verbal blows, finally saying what has been hanging over them all night.

Reeves does an excellent job of portraying the fish-out-of-water as Alan tries to find a niche to fit into among the men, even as his face reflects his existential turmoil. He and Mussett share a warm camaraderie as Alan feels a vibe with Hank. Dante flaunts his character's attitude about needing to have his independence despite being in a relationship, and has a good connection with Buscaglia when Larry and Donald put their heads together to demonstrate the former's autonomy. Despite his low self-esteem, Donald is one of the steadier forces and Buscaglia plays him like a mensch. DiLoreto can make you laugh at Emory's excesses one minute, and break your heart the next when he relates a sad anecdote about a crush gone awry. Although his character is not as well-defined as some of the others, Singletary is moving in his moment in the spotlight. The cowboy is there as a plot device and Wingert fulfills his assignment with charm and innocence.

It has been said that The Boys in the Band features a roster of stereotypes, but Crowley counters that the characters are all based on people he knew and, in a roomful of any homogeneous group, one is likely to find predictable types. However, it is a credit to Miller as director and interpreter of the playwright's work, as well as the indelible portrayals by the nonet, that each and every character becomes a living, breathing man with a credible back story. As for those who say the play is dated, it is most definitely representative of its time, but look beyond the styles and artifacts to see part of the history of the Gay Pride movement.

Photo credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (Bob Mussett, Gene Dante, Diego Buscaglia, Mikey DiLoreto, Damon Singletary, Victor Shopov, Ryan Landry, and Brooks Reeves)

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