The Boys in the Band

About Face Theatre

at the Theatre Building

By Albert Williams

“I’m turning on and you’re just turning….Revolution complete,” says Harold, the self-described “32-year-old ugly pockmarked Jew fairy” whose birthday party brings together the title characters of Mart Crowley’s landmark 1968 comedy-drama The Boys in the Band. The “turn” Harold refers to is the one being executed by Michael as he devolves from the party’s charming and sober host to its drunkest and least welcome member, tossing off ever crueler quips at his friends and goading them into a grim game of self-revelation.

But as the About Face Theatre’s sturdy and often sensitive revival of this durable (if somewhat dated) play reveals, The Boys in the Band is about another kind of revolution altogether: the transformation of a subculture of shame into a community bound by self-understanding, self-respect, loyalty, and love. The script that launched modern gay theater (influencing such works as A Chorus Line, Angels in America, and the recent hit Love! Valour! Compassion!) also anticipates the birth of “gay liberation” during a weekend of antipolice protests in 1969 outside a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn.

Not that there’s a hint of gay lib’s rhetoric of sexual freedom and socialist sympathy in Crowley’s script, which is steeped in the retro-camp humor of its characters, a group of middle-class Upper East Siders in their early 30s (as Crowley was when he wrote the play) whose social lives consist largely of anonymous pickups at bars and bathhouses and line dancing on Fire Island. In 1968 this lifestyle and its flamboyant, often blue vernacular was startling onstage–both to straights who’d never seen or heard it before and to gays who were used to the codes and hypocrisy of portrayals of homosexuality in American theater. As Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of April 15, 1968, The Boys in the Band was the first play to take “the homosexual milieu, and the homosexual way of life, totally for granted.” Perhaps it sent a few nervous nellies “back into the closet, screaming and kicking and looking for double-bolt locks,” because of its allegedly “miserable, self-hating, back-stabbing, loveless” characters, as one overheated critic claimed in last week’s Windy City Times, but most audiences embraced the work’s candor as liberating. As Chicago Sun-Times critic Glenna Syse noted in her review of the national touring company at the old Studebaker, the largely gay opening-night crowd “hooted, hollered, and applauded” the play’s rude witticisms; she added, only half-jokingly, “I plan to go back…on some quiet night–say when the performance is a benefit for Field and Stream or Family Circle.”

The most universal drama is always the most specific: The Boys in the Band transcends its roots in the gay experience because it stays true to them. The play’s fundamental theme is a staple of American dramatists from Eugene O’Neill to Edward Albee and Sam Shepard: the need to strip away illusion, despite the anguishing cost, to face reality. (Michael’s attack on his companions’ self-deceptions recalls Hickey’s assault on the pipe-dreaming patrons of Harry Hope’s saloon in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.) Through the caustic jibes the characters toss at each other–and through the anxious analysis they force upon themselves–the play explores racism, ageism, sexism, violence, substance abuse, anxieties about masculinity and femininity, fear of emotional commitment, promiscuity and possessiveness, and a slew of still troublesome issues beyond homosexuality and homophobia.

Yet what I find most striking now about Crowley’s one-shot hit (this was his only stage success, though he enjoyed a lucrative career as a Hollywood writer-producer) is its portrait of a moment of transition in American culture, of which the gay sensibility–like the sensibilities of blacks and Jews–has always been a far more significant component than was acknowledged. The “boys in the band” are men in the remaking–and despite the ugly psychic (and on one occasion physical) wounds they inflict on one another and themselves, the prognosis for them is surprisingly bright. Though reviewers of 30-odd years ago sometimes saw the play as a portrait of “wasted lives” (in the words of one), in fact it depicts lives full of promise. Consider Hank, the straitlaced schoolteacher who’s left his wife for a male lover, the promiscuous barfly Larry: introduced as a comically bickering couple, Hank and Larry come to embody the rewards of a committed relationship solidified not only by bold gestures (Hank leaves the message “I love you” for Larry through their shared phone service, a considerable act of bravery in those pre-Stonewall, prevoicemail times) but also by their efforts to talk through their misunderstandings. Then there’s Emory, the pronoun-switching sissy mocked as “a butterfly in heat” by the party’s maybe-straight gate-crasher, Michael’s college chum Alan. Emory suffers a bloody nose at Alan’s hands, but he also learns to savor defiance; it’s not hard to imagine him as part of the queens’ brigade that resisted police harassment at Stonewall. Emory also figures in the sense of dignity that Bernard, the band’s token “Negro” and the butt of relentless Uncle Tom jokes, acquires when he finally reveals the resentment he hides. Emory’s promise to Bernard to stop making such jokes and the suggestion that he will also stop submitting to jokes about his effeminacy are small but significant steps forward.

What many people remember from the morbid, sensational film version of The Boys in the Band are the showily destructive actions taken by the guilt-ridden, self-hating lapsed Catholic Michael. Yet the play definitively rejects not only those actions but also the assumption behind them–that there’s something sick and therefore curable about homosexuality. Tellingly, the final assault on Michael and the pathology he represents is delivered by the Jew Harold, in a beautifully structured jeremiad whose conclusion–“You will always be homosexual…until the day you die”–sets up Michael’s tentative statement of healing self-acceptance: “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves.”

In the age of AIDS and Ellen, it may be hard to understand just how repressive mainstream American culture was when The Boys in the Band was new. The leaders of the gay-identified About Face theater collective weren’t even born when the play premiered, but the youthful energy of director Kyle Hall’s production generates a sense of change taking place even as we watch. Rather than depict a bunch of lonely losers wallowing in their misery, About Face movingly shows people struggling toward self-understanding and empowerment. The comic discomfiture of the tuxedoed, uptight Alan reads here not just as the embarrassment of a homophobe in an unabashedly gay environment but as the shock of an old, complacent order being shaken by a deep social upheaval, of which gay liberation is only a part. And the psychological bloodletting the others undergo comes across not as an orgy of self-debasement but as a strangely invigorating ritual of renewal.

The Boys in the Band has always been a rich but challenging ensemble piece with the potential to sink into stereotype or bathos; happily, the mostly excellent About Face performances avoid these pitfalls. Nathan Rankin brilliantly executes Michael’s journey from engaging dizziness to vengeful hostility to a crying jag so primal you can hear him being broken and rebuilt; Paul Waters makes Emory’s confessional monologue (about an improbable adolescent infatuation with “Delbert Botts, D.D.S.”) a vitally entertaining and touching reenactment of teen trauma rather than wispy reverie; Brian Goodman and Page Hearn render the tempestuous pairing of Larry and Hank very believable; John Harrell is the image of freaked-out rectitude as Alan; and Tyron Perry makes you feel every ounce of pain behind Bernard’s too-quick, too-broad house-slave smile. Less satisfying, at least at the final preview I attended, were rather colorless performances by Timothy Davis as Cowboy, the $20 hustler rented by Emory as Harold’s birthday present, and Scott Duff as Michael’s studiously self-analytical lover-turned-caretaker Donald, while Marc Silvia was naggingly inconsistent as the pothead prophet Harold–laceratingly funny sometimes, off the mark at others. Missing the character’s crucial enigmatic aloofness, Silvia laughs too early and too easily on his first entrance and later allows his hurt feelings to come off as petulance.

Perhaps these flaws will be corrected over the show’s run, which rightly is timed to coincide with the annual Gay Pride events honoring the anniversary of Stonewall in June: the revolution the play depicts is far from over–people still struggle with the problems Crowley’s characters face, from social oppression to personal insecurity. But the culture has come a long way in 30 years, and this Boys in the Band is a well-played reminder for gay and straight audiences alike of just how long the journey’s been–and how far it still has to go.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): stage photo by Stephanie Howard.