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Assuming you know what “The Boys in the Band” is — for those who don’t, it’s a seminal play by Mart Crowley that premiered in 1968 to instant acclaim and controversy — what are your gut feelings about it? For many, it’s that the play is dated, stuffed with gay stereotypes to which we no longer cling. But hold on. Let’s not stereotype a play by pegging it too brusquely as being about stereotypes. Let’s remember, too, that to scratch a stereotype is to discover truths, whether they’re the sort we’ve long put behind us, or the sort that linger on.
Two years after the play’s premiere, in 1970, a William Friedkin-directed film version hit cinema screens. (A 45th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the movie was released a few months ago). This version of the material (Crowley wrote the screenplay) is probably the one most people are familiar with. A lot has happened since then: AIDS, the rise and fall of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and a titanic struggle over marriage equality. Stagecraft, unlike film, offers a certain fluidity, so the play need not remain locked, like the movie, into an unchanging set of performances and a monolithic directorial vision. But what would, and should, a contemporary production of the play look like?
In making “The Boys in the Band” the opener of its new season, the Zeitgeist Stage Company has set about answering this question.
Look beyond the period details (some of which are not quite authentic, with anachronistic props and music cropping up here and there; other design elements don’t feel particular to any specific time period at all) and what you’ll find here are many of the same questions that are hotly debated even now, starting with the question of nature versus nurture — a question that has transformed, in the battle-hardened parlance of our times, to whether being gay is a “choice.” For the record, it’s not; but the play begins, and ends, with this most central of all questions. Some myths and assumptions about gays are dispelled in the course of the show’s roughly two and a half hour running time; other tropes, though, prove surprisingly charged and resilient.
Crowley’s play takes place on a single evening, in the Manhattan apartment of a fellow named Michael (Victor Shopov). In the leisurely opening scenes, Michael prepares for a birthday bash he’s hosting that night and chats with the party’s first guest, Donald (Diego Buscaglia). As play moves forward, other characters enter by ones and twos. Among them are a couple, Larry (Gene Dante) and Hank (Bob Mussett), embroiled in an argument about monogamy. (It doesn’t take long to discern which of the pair is for it, and which against.) In a further complication, Hank is married, and a father; only now, after years of artifice and deception, is he accepting who he is and making his way, degree by degree, toward a more genuine life."
Emory (Mikey DiLoreto) is perpetually single, and perpetually lonesome. (Many of the characters are; it’s one of the sore points about the play, because to its critics it’s another instance in which gay men are portrayed as generally, and incurably, isolated and unhappy.) Emory and his friends attribute Emory’s relationship status to him being effeminate and, therefore, unattractive. (Another trope that raises hackles among the gay community even today.)
Bernard (Damon Singletary) is an African American man who hails from the South, where he grew up employed (as was his mother) by a white family. His presence is less a PC gesture toward inclusivity than a form of shorthand that implies the myriad of ways in which the struggles for equality by racial and sexual minorities have been parallel societal experiences and, in some ways, are even intertwined.
Enter the hustler, still another hot-button gay trope. Cowboy (Richard Wingert) — not a member of Michael’s circle of friends, but rather a “present” for the birthday boy — is muscular and uneducated. He’s always two beats behind everyone else (and that fact that the others constantly have to explain things to him feels like a means for the playwright to explain elements of gay culture to the straights in the audience) and the others dismiss him as dull. He was played as a moron in the film, but he’s portrayed here more as a sweet-natured innocent.
Into this swirling mix comes Michael’s old college friend Alan (Brooks Reeves), a straight man with no idea that Michael is gay. Once Alan does figure it out, he latches on to Hank — the one man in the room Alan thinks he has something in common with, namely a wife, kids and putative heterosexuality.
Finally, halfway through the play, birthday boy Harold (Ryan Landry) makes his entrée. Both grand and weary, Harold is the picture of the urbane gay man who’s seen it all, done it all and grown bored with the entire scene.
Michael’s discontent originates with himself, but focuses on those around him; he’s bossy and argumentative, and he becomes drunk and malicious as the party continues. Harold, on the other hand, knows who he is and has put his demons to rest. His discontent lies in seeing everyone around him still fighting the same battles he’s long since resolved. His wisdom, if you can call it that, comes with age: This is Harold’s 45th birthday party. He’s the oldest one there. He’s also the embodiment of a whole complex of gay issues, being the aging former stud. That’s why his birthday present is a hot young hustler — the gift of Cowboy’s services for the night reflects both a cruel practicality and an awkward, misguided kindness.
If this assortment of personalities and personal circumstances isn’t a carefully assembled cross-section of stereotypes, then what is? Director David Miller and his cast confront this question with fearless energy that’s unapologetically informed by the decades that have passed since 1968. Characters that seem in the abstract to be stereotypes quickly take on dimension; the play itself equips the cast with what they need, and the actors make full use of it.
This is a cast that understands the universality of the material. Even in 2015, there are plenty of married fathers discovering that they can’t continue lying to themselves, their wives and their children; there are plenty of effeminate men fending off unthinking disdain and embracing their own brand of strength and beauty; and, if you’re gay, you know there’s still plenty of high drama surrounding the question of who’s young, who’s cute, who’s hot … and who, according to an infuriatingly simplistic set of formulae, is not.
The play’s climactic set piece is a humiliating party game that rubs salt in everyone’s old romantic wounds. Michael initiates the game with an eye to forcing Alan out of the closet — the idea being that Michael himself is surrendering to the temptation to reduce the people around him to types and tropes.
It’s a dangerous way to look at the world, because writing others off according to simplistic labels — as Michael does in assuming Alan is gay and lying to himself about it — invariably says more about the person making the assumption that the person to whom that label is applied. All these years later, that’s the tune these boys are playing for us, and we still need to hear the message.
Zeitgeist Stage's production of “The Boys in the Band” continues through Oct. 3 at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Kilian Melloy has reviewed film and theater for a number of publications, including EDGE Boston and the Cambridge Chronicle. He is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association and the Boston Online Film Critics Association.