As a Chicago native of a certain age, 1968 always conjured images in my mind of police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But if you were a gay New Yorker in 1968, you probably remember fighting the social oppression that ignited the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which were the first open call for gay rights. The social milieu of 1968 and how it shaped the gay mentality is being revisited by the new production of Mart Crowley’s ground breaking play, The Boys in the Band, now celebrating its 50thanniversary in a fine, star studded production enjoying a nearly sold out limited run on Broadway at the Booth Theater through August 11.
I have a particular affection for this play because, when I was a boy in the 60’s, there was a period during which several Broadway plays were specially recorded for issue on multi-disk LP sets. I collected them all, and listened to them over and over. The Boys in the Band was one of those plays. I loved the bitchy jokes which masked everyone’s deep pain, so much so that I surprised myself when I turned out to be straight! Because the play was recorded in a studio without an audience, I had no idea how incredibly funny it really could be on stage, until seeing this wicked, it-only-hurts-when-I-laugh production, superbly directed by Joe Mantello.
The play takes place in the home of Michael a 32 y.o, gay, Catholic man of Southern origin, played by Jim Parsons. Mr. Parsons is, of course, the hugely popular star of The Big Bang Theory, who plays the socially clueless but brilliant scientist, Sheldon. He also bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Crowley himself, as he looked at the time he wrote the play. Although Mr. Parsons is trying very hard these days not to be type cast as Sheldon, his accent, inflections, and manners, as well as his deadpan comedic style, remain so distinctive yet similar in all the roles he plays that he seems to bring much the same person to the stage in this role. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, because Mr. Parson’s theatrical persona is absolutely credible as this bitchy, frustrated, pained, self-hating man who hides behind a mask of forced joviality. What does get lost in the newly edited script, however, is Michael’s penchant for impersonating female movie stars, and a certain amount of flamboyance, which could have allowed Mr. Parsons to smile once in a while.
In preparing his script for this revival, Mr. Crowley also cut a memorable albeit deeply depressing monologue from the beginning of the show in which Michael seems to blame his being gay on the feminizing influence of his uncomfortably close relationship with his mother. That monologue is also full of the self-loathing which will define Michael and drive his destructive behavior as the play moves forward.
At first, I thought that monologue had been cut because the “nurture vs. nature” argument it set forth has been discredited. But the more compelling reason to cut it was to eliminate what would have been a real downer at the top of the show. By doing so, the audience was much more willing to feel they’ve been given permission to laugh, and laugh we did. Although none of the sex jokes can shock anymore on the heels of Will and Grace or Book of Mormon, I’m sure the handful of people who walked out last night did so because they mistakenly thought they had bought tickets for The Band’s Visit,and they were expecting a very different tune.
At rise, Michael is preparing to host a birthday party for his friend, Harold. The friends who gather to celebrate Harold’s birthday are as individual as they are bonded together. Michael’s friend and former lover, Donald (Matt Bomer) is the most compassionate and least troubled of the group, although Crowley has ascribed to him some of the scars of being raised by the clingy mother and ineffective father figure formerly attached to Michael’s character. Robin de Jesus is the funniest and most heartbreaking of the group, as Emory, the most fragile and effeminate butterfly among them. As Emory’s lover, Bernard, Michael Benjamin Washington captures a proud, intelligent African-American man with all the dignity one could muster at that time. Emory brings a twenty dollar male prostitute called Cowboy as “present” for Harold. Innocent, clueless, and hunky, Cowboy is played with touching sincerity by Charlie Carver. Tuc Watkins is the solid, straight acting, bi-sexual schoolteacher, Hank, fighting to save his relationship with his sexually polyamorous partner, Larry (Andrew Ranells). It is the birthday boy, Harold, a pockmarked, self-loathing, ascerbic, Jewish queen, played with delicious sliminess by Zachary Quinto, who stands in the center of the action like the eye of the storm, commenting wryly.
What could have been a nice little party gets upended by the appearance of Michael’s very straight laced college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchinson), who broke down in tears on the phone before showing up unexpectedly at Michael’s door to talk. Alan supposedly did not know in college that Michael was gay, and it takes an unusually long time for the message to sink in when he arrives. Michael forces his friends to play a game like “truth or dare” which is meant to entertain, intimidate, and possibly out Alan. What actually happens leaves the audience literally gasping in surprise.
The whole apartment is done in deep red velvet by scenic designer David Zinn, who also did the unobtrusive costumes. The color scheme foreshadows the emotional bloodletting which is about to occur over the course of the evening. Mantello freezes and isolates key moments for our special attention in highly sculptural and evocative lighting by Hugh Vanstone.
The Boys in the Band evokes a time very different than we know today. First, it was before any of the incurable STD’s which brought the party to a crashing end. But even sexual freedom without physical consequence couldn’t compensate for having to meet in public restrooms under clandestine circumstances, for being considered depraved and aberrant by straight society, or for living in a world where you could get arrested in a bar just for touching the same glass another man had recently held. It was also a time where there were few gay characters in mainstream plays and movies. Such as there were all seemed to come to a bad end. The scandalously frank, lesbian tale, The Killing of Sister George, made into a movie also in 1968, didn’t end any more happily. Although The Boys in the Bandwas made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1970, the play remained largely shunned by the gay activists who were seeking equality, validation, and more positive self-images.
Like all good plays, The Boys in the Band is not about gays with a capital “G”. It’s about a room full of very specific men in a very specific time. It is the insight and compassion with which Crowley captured that moment in the lives of those men which makes this an enduring theater piece well worth revisiting.
The Boys in the Band: Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. closing 8/12