June 17-24, 2004
The Boys in the Band
Sooner or later, every gay theater company must decide how to handle The Boys in the Band, the genre's most (sorry) seminal drama. In recent years, activists have decried Mart Crowley's 1968 play for images of self-hate and dissipation. But a year before Stonewall, Boys was a brave new world, placing center stage what had previously lurked in the shadows.
It's a good move for the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Theatre Festival to take on Boys in this, their second year and better still, to honor it with a fine production.
In Boys, Michael, a 30-something homosexual, throws a birthday party for his friend/enemy, Harold. The guest list is made up entirely of gay men ("six tired, screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer," as the host says), and the evening promises glittery badinage. Things don't turn out so well, though. The unexpected arrival of Michael's college friend, the aristocratic (and ostensibly straight) Alan, throws things into a tailspin. (Almost as tragic: No one wants to eat Michael's cracked crab appetizer.)
Before the evening is out, truth games will be played, and no one emerges unscathed. You might say Boys does for gay life what Albee's Virginia Woolf does for marriage: It blows the lid off the joint.
Putting politics aside for a moment, let's first acknowledge that Boys is a hell of a play, snapping with genuinely brilliant one-liners. More important, it is superbly structured in the old-fashioned, well-made-play way with everything hanging together. And young playwrights take note Mart Crowley, in his first significant work, is able to orchestrate fluent conversation among nine characters, each of whom emerges as a specific individual.
And what of the complaints that Boys portrays a relentlessly negative picture of urban gay men as narcissistic, bitter, shallow? There may be an element of truth (and thank God, life is different in 2004!).
But such criticism misses more important basic points. For the Boys boys, melodramatics function as a kind of private performance piece, with the dinner party serving as their stage. Bathetic revelations and annihilating wit are as carefully rehearsed as any Broadway show. Such behavior is also a kind of code among the gay community (and for years afterward, Emory's "Who do I have to fuck to get a drink around here?" was uttered at cocktail parties to help gay guests identify each other). Are some of the characters over the top, a gay version of a minstrel show? Well, if so, it's an archetype still active in entertainment (Mario Cantone in Sex and the City, Roger Bart in The Stepford Wives).
Boys also confronts racial politics in a way that even now feels shockingly fresh.
The 1968 original off-Broadway production of Boys is now a thing of legend, but happily that company made a film of the play. Under William Friedkin's direction, the hairpin turns of humor and anger are breathtakingly quick, the ensemble cast universally superb. It sets an impossibly high benchmark.
At PGLTF, director Matthew Cloran has wisely followed the original while making it feel fresh. It is very well staged, and among an able cast there are standout performances by Bob MacCallum (Emory), Frederick Andersen (Harold) and especially Mike Dees (Alan).
Crowley's post-Boys theater career never really took off, and he eventually made his way into the more lucrative world of television. But a few years ago, he wrote a new Boys sequel The Men from the Boys that revisits six of the original characters more than 30 years later.
In another clever move, PGLTF did a one-night-only staged reading of Men, featuring a cast of Philadelphia gay celebrities (including party guru extraordinaire Henri David, and traffic reporter cutie John Ogden). A book-in-hand reading is tough for even experienced actors, and here the company brimming with charm and goodwill had some trouble scoring the peaks and valleys of the play. Or maybe the problem is Crowley's: Men has some funny lines, but some of the plot points are confused, and ultimately the piece seems inconsequential. Men never tarnishes the stature of Boys, but neither does it add anything appreciable.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND Through June 20, Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Theatre Festival, Arcadia Stage at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122