The Boys in the Band
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 20, 2010
When I first read in college Mart Crowley's 1968 play, The Boys in the Band, I thought it inarguably important for its time. A birthday party full of gay men in which bitchy barbs belie and betray their bottomless self-hatred? Even a gay teenager such as myself—in Manhattan, yes, but a recent transplant from sub-suburban Missouri—had not witnessed such violent internalized homophobia. And although it was a good read, I wrote it off as thankfully, mercifully dated.
And now, just over a decade later, I have had the tremendous pleasure of seeing Transport Group's extraordinary production and I slouch corrected: The Boys in the Band is about as much a gay-themed play as West Side Story is a Puerto-Rican-themed musical. It is now a play about men who happen to be gay and who are struggling with virility, fidelity, platonic and romantic intimacy.
As rapid globalization hurtles us towards sameness, the ghettos are gone and the differences are becoming more superficial: we are homogenizing. Straight men are discovering their prostates and trimming their pubic hair; gay men are forming football teams and pitching themselves online as "frat bros" seeking "bi/married dudes" with whom to "chill." In the past decade, much popular attention has been paid to male-bonding and "bromances," to films such as I Love You, Man and historical reexaminations of Abraham Lincoln's cuddlebuddies; the weirdly-perfunctory suffix "no homo" (appended to a male-to-male compliment) alone signifies a crisis of manliness.
THIS is the lens through which I watched The Boys in the Band, keenly directed by Jack Cummings III and currently being performed in a to-die-for Chelsea loft. Seated throughout the room, divided by a bar and a bar and a desk and another bar (these gentlemen can drink!), the audience could easily touch Michael, the host, as he brushes past us to lights the lights, drop the needle on the Judy Garland record, and usher in his friends—guys who run the gamut from the saucy and swishy Emory to Hank, the dashing and discreet school teacher who recently left his wife for his "roommate" Larry.
Were it not for one unexpected guest, the evening might end up just another gay affair. But Alan (Michael's straight and married college roommate, who is in town for the night without his wife and called earlier in tears about some troublous situation that he declined to explain over the phone) crashes the party, shocked to find himself amongst such a disturbingly broad cross-section of masculinity. And it is Alan's disdain that prompts Michael to drink (he's been quaffing club soda, because he's a real mean drunk) and turn an unforgiving eye on himself and his old pals. And then it becomes a night of lacerating self-revelation and relentless exposure; one of those parties that we hate to attend, but love to watch.
Cummings has assembled a uniformly excellent cast who strike a delicate balance between the emotionally authentic and the behaviorally theatrical, giving these men a genuine dignity: they are not drunken sashaying vessels of internalized homophobia—ticking time bombs pretending to be cuckoo-clocks—but most of them, like most of us, have culturally-interpreted physiognomies which right us in some ways and wrong us in others.
I certainly do not mean to suggest that 1968 was not a time of horrible oppression for gays or that the LGBT community—locally and globally—is not still in a very precarious political position 42 years later. But after seeing this beautiful realization of his (very very funny, in addition to deeply affecting) play, I recant the observations I made on Mart Crowley's magnum opus during Theatre History C the second semester of my freshman year. The Boys in the Band are struggling but surviving being gay; however all men are in some way suffering under a despotic paradigm of manhood.