That aside (for the moment anyway), director Kenneth Elliott’s unaltered production at the WPA Theater allows audiences to ponder an even more basic question: Just how good a play is this anyway? The answer won’t entirely please the Crowley nostalgists. Clunky, melodramatic and stocked with more gay caricatures than the Village People, “The Boys in the Band” demands more than a little patience as it bitches its way to the good stuff. The campy, venomous one-liners retain some humor, though the style has been usurped and improved upon by 28 intervening years of theater, gay and otherwise.
To say Elliott has not “reimagined” the play is an understatement — there’s not a hint of modern perspective or attitude on stage, an unadorned time-capsule approach that seems to carry only one real benefit, that being to give modern audiences a chance to actually see a play that has entered into cultural lore. You could, of course, just rent the superior 1970 movie.
TX: TX:A WPA Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Mart Crowley. Directed by Kenneth Elliott. The most intriguing question of all, though — will modern audiences connect emotionally to “The Boys in the Band”? — might have to wait until a better production, with a more consistent cast, comes along.
The plot finds eight gay men attending a birthday party in the modestly chic East 50s duplex of Michael (David Drake). A recovering Catholic and lapsed alcoholic, 30-year-old Michael has invited his circle of “screaming queens” and “tired fairies” to the bash: Donald (Jeff Woodman), Michael’s best friend and conscience; Emory (James Lecesne), a campy, effeminate decorator; Bernard (William Christian), the sole black friend and target of Michael’s racist humor; and bickering couple Hank (David Bishins), a butch button-down type, and Larry (Sean McDermott), a promiscuous artist. Emory brings along Cowboy (Scott Decker) , a studly hustler intended as a birthday gift.
What drives Michael to ill-tempered drink is the unexpected arrival of old college roommate Alan (Robert Bogue), a conservative, married man with a secret problem. Crashing the party, and soon bashing Emory, Alan has Michael in a panic.
Enter Harold (David Greenspan), the birthday boy, self-described “pockmarked Jew fairy” and only person who can match Michael’s descent into nastiness barb for barb. He alone understands the self-loathing that fuels Michael’s drunken cruelty, and serves as both foil and alter-ego.
Harold verbalizes all the internalized homophobia made clear in the scathing interactions of the party guests. Emory takes out his self-hatred by Uncle Tomming Bernard, who takes it out on himself by allowing it. Hank would rather be with his estranged wife and kids, Harold picks his blemished face raw, Donald languishes in therapy, etc.
But the self-loathing just might be the least offensive of all the play’s dated trappings. What startles most is the depiction of gay “friends” as mean-spirited back-stabbers, setting their demons on one another like so many mad dogs.
Both the play’s datedness and its structural flaws become clear within 15 minutes, as Michael and Donald (the other guests haven’t arrived) trade lengthy, exposition-heavy speeches filled with tired, mommy-hating psy-chobabble.
But at least one problem is the production’s, not the play’s. The audience knows (via a one-sided phone conversation) that the straight Alan is in some sort of emotional distress, yet when he arrives, as stiffly played by Bogue, he’s a hail-fellow-well-met without a hint of dark undercurrent. There’s no tension.
Some other performances are equally spotty, with McDermott, a talented musical theater performer, making scant impression as the sleep-around Larry, and newcomer Decker a bit out of his league. Christian can do little with the difficult role of Bernard.
Faring better are Woodman and Bishins, while Lecesne gets most of the laughs by downplaying the malice behind Emory’s campy humor. Drake’s tendency to overact is evident during the play’s earlier, quieter scenes, but the actor hits a good stride as he unleashes Michael’s demons.
And Greenspan. Is there a quirkier actor on the New York stage? Known for his offbeat (and, some would argue, off-putting) performance pieces, Greenspan plays Harold in a stylized, hyper-mannered way that suggests a cat’s slinky movements and a 5-year-old girl’s piping, singsong voice. His approach (the character arrives seconds before intermission) immediately clashes with the more naturalistic perfs of the others, yet by the play’s end he’s insinuated his way to being the most interesting thing on James Noone’s remarkably kitsch-free set.
The WPA’s small stage, by the way, gives Michael an apartment considerably more cramped than that remembered from the movie, making the characters seem younger, less established than their film counterparts.
Whatever the flaws of the play or production, “The Boys in the Band” deserves its place in theater history. Now we’ll need a fresher, more original approach to know whether it deserves space on today’s stage.