Windy City Playhouse
The Boys in the Band
At the Windy City Playhouse by Dan Zeff
Chicago – In 1968, Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” became a huge hit in New York City. It wasn’t the first American play to choose homosexuality in realistic depth, but it was the most commercially successful stage examination of the modern gay lifestyle in America to that time.
In the play, six homosexual men are giving a birthday party for a seventh, augmented by the appearance of a gay male prostitute (hired by one of the six as a present for the birthday boy), and an uninvited guest who may or may not be gay. Crowley’s language is biting and bitchy and funny, especially during the first half of the play, before the playwright concentrates on the emotional and psychological costs of being gay in a heterosexual society. Indeed, the play rarely uses the term “gay” in favor of “homosexual,” an almost complete reversal in today’s society. It’s a reflection of those times that the respected “Best Plays of the Year” reference book called homosexuality a “disease” in its 1967-1968 edition.
“The Boys in the Band” did not go over well with segments of the gay community when it opened. Crowley was accused of creating a group portrait that was melodramatic, negative, and drenched in stereotypes. Gay critics of the play objected to the theme of self hatred and guilt that ran through the play, portraying the characters as two-dimensional hysterical neurotics.
“The Boys in the Band” was revived in New York City a couple of seasons ago and won critical and commercial acclaim, indicating that the play retained its original relevance and its high entertainment level. The Windy City production doesn’t quite reach those levels. The production is well staged and well acted but the bite too often is lacking. The slash and burn verbal exchanges that ignited the play more than a half century ago stimulated roars of laughter in 1968 but only chuckles at the final preview performance I just saw.
The characters are led by Michael, the host of the birthday party for Harold, a late arrival at the celebration. Emory is an interior director whose ostentatiously campy mannerisms provide much of the humor. The other party attendees are Donald, Hank, Larry, and Bernard, with uninvited visitor Alan and the male prostitute known only as the Cowboy filling out the character lineup. The Windy City revival omits the intermission and runs for a continuous 1 hour and 45 minutes, a good dramaturgical decision that allows the narrative’s shift in tone to escalate without interruption.
That shift starts when the presumably straight and definitely homophobic Alan makes his unscheduled appearance, eventually leading to a physical brawl. From then on the action, fueled by booze, develops into a flood of confessions, revelations, and accusations as secrets are bared and subterranean emotions boil to the surface. We see the partygoers as men defined by their gayness, driven by anger, despair, guilt and resignation. It was this neurotic group portrait that antagonized so many gay critics of the play as an oversimplification of the gay lifestyle of the time. Still, “The Boys in the Band” can be credited as the first play that attempted to evoke a realistic gay lifestyle without being judgmental or apologetic.
The Windy City revival once again relies on the company’s “immersion” style, with the audience scattered throughout the theater space, sitting on benches, often only inches away from the viewer. The informal seating arrangement can create sightline issues, with some spectators blocked from the view of a full-stocked kitchen set or an upper level bedroom. The scattered audience, limited to 40 people, diminishes the effectiveness of a massed experience shared among intimately arranged spectators. Having some actors operating on the edges of the set also created some audio problems for me.
But the staging does achieve its purpose of immersing the audience in the action instead of divided it from the play by an orchestra pit. The connection between show and audience is enhanced by stagehands who serve cocktails and hot spiced vegetarian meatballs to the seated viewers during the performance.
My main criticism of the production is that the performance doesn’t elevate the in-your-face verbal exchanges to a sufficiently nasty comic level, though it does deliver the scorching emotional scenes with bravura intensity. The most effective performance comes from Jackson Evans as Michael, the orchestrator of the birthday party and the production’s most complete character. William Marquez’s Emory is funny but could accent the campiness a little more. The remainder of the cast consists of Jordan Dell Harris (Donald), Ryan Reilly ((Hank), James Lee (Larry), Denzel Tsopnang (Bernard), Christian Edward Cook (Alan), Sam Bell-Gurwitz (Harold), and Kyle Patrick the Cowboy.
Carl Menninger is the director. The action flows smoothly under his guidance but his ensemble leaves too many laughs on the table. William Boles designed the set, Uriel Connor designed the costumes, Erik S. Berry designed the lighting, and Sarah D. Espinosa designed the sound. Max Fabian was kept very busy as the intimacy and violence designer.
Today, it may be impossible to recreate the excitement and controversy that made “The Boys in the Band” such a fresh audience experience in 1968. It’s the fate of revolutionary art works to be absorbed into mainstream with the passage of time. Do we hear the phrase “in the closet” anymore? And “gay” is no longer a term of derision. Yet, at its most emotionally intense Crowley’s work remains more than a historical artifact. The conflicts remain valid, even though they now involve boy-boy rather than boy-girl crises. Having some actors operating on the edges of the set also created some audio problems for me. I just wish the dialogue drew more blood.
“The Boys in the Band” gets a rating of.
“The Boys in the Band” runs through April 19 at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 West Irving Park Road. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $75 to $95. Call (773) 891-8985 or visit email@example.com.