Show puts the audience in the thick of Mart Crowley's bitterest of birthday parties.
It’s rudeness bordering on hostility to invite people over to your Chelsea penthouse, shove your flawless view of the Empire State Building in their faces, then spend the next two hours tossing back cocktails without offering them a drink. But what would “The Boys in the Band” be without shabby treatment of the guests? The Transport Group’s site-specific production puts the audience in the thick of Mart Crowley’s bitterest of birthday parties. It plants us right in the firing line when the quips give way to earnest self-loathing and the vitriol starts flying through the air like daggers in a knife-throwing act.The real accomplishment of the staging by Jack Cummings III, however, is that it physically minimizes the vast cultural distance separating the audience from the landmark 1968 play. Being so close to the well-paced action somehow helps pardon the mechanical methods used to steer the bitchy banter into ugly confrontation. And it serves to distract from the more uneasy anachronisms of this candid pre-Stonewall self-portrait of the gay American male. Not that the stereotypes and the wallowing in self-pity don’t rankle, but there’s something entertainingly tart and refreshing about the play’s pre-PC acidity. Kind of like that extra dry martini we’re not offered. (To be fair, audience members can buy drinks before the show if they wish.) Set designer Sandra Goldmark and costumer Kathryn Rohe have blurred the period specificity to further bridge the gap of almost a half-century. So the play remains anchored in its time but doesn’t seem quite the relic it does, for example, in William Friedkin’s 1970 screen version. At first, it’s a little awkward for those sitting down front as the nimble actors weave around sofas just inches away from the audience’s feet. One small group of spectators even gets to share table space with the overcooked lasagna when dinner is served. But the odd sightlines are more often intriguing than frustrating (who doesn’t rubberneck at parties?), and the gimmicky idea behind the staging soon starts to make dramatic sense. The story unfolds in real time. Host Michael (Jonathan Hammond) sashays around the apartment, adjusting the lighting and getting in a party mood by tossing Judy Garland on the stereo, singing “Almost Like Being in Love/This Can’t Be Love.” De rigueur as the choice might seem for a birthday bash with a gay-gay-gay guestlist, those song titles are actually a telling early indication of tortured Michael’s ambivalence about his sexuality. His Catholic guilt, partiality to booze, receding hairline and addiction to living beyond his means don’t exactly help. The guests are more types than characters, yet Crowley’s observation skills are sharp enough that most audiences with at least a handful of gay acquaintances will recognize them. There’s depressed intellectual Donald (Nick Westrate), who has tired of the gay scene and fled the city; swishy decorator Emory (John Wellmann), whose flamboyant behavior invites ridicule but suggests greater self-esteem than some of his friends; Bernard (Kevyn Morrow), the black guy who plays along with Emory’s “Uncle Tom” jokes; Larry (Christopher Innvar), unapologetic about his aggressively nonexclusive sexual appetite; and his relatively straight-seeming partner Hank (Graham Rowat), a gray-suited math teacher who left his wife for Larry. Vying with Michael for meanest mouth in the room is birthday boy Harold (Jon Levenson), who describes himself as “an ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” Toking on joint after joint while hissing out snide remarks that rarely ascend above a sneering whisper, he’s never going to be any gay boy’s role model. The drama gets cranked up via two key plot devices, neither uncontrived. First comes the unexpected arrival of Michael’s straight college roommate, Alan (Kevin Isola), who walks in on Emory and pals resurrecting an old Fire Island dance routine to “Heatwave,” and never quite recovers. Next is a truth game orchestrated by Michael. Its aim, in addition to making his friends squirm, is to force Alan to come out. But whether the emotionally traumatized family man is a repressed homosexual remains open to interpretation. This party could prompt anyone to slam the closet door shut forever. Sitting out the more venomous rounds perched on a desk, beady-eyed Harold reminds Michael he’s the one person better at these “hateful” games than his host. Michael’s refusal to heed that warning brings everybody’s pain bubbling to the surface as the layers of protective camouflage come off. But more importantly, it spells Michael’s own eventual collapse into a blubbering mess. Hammond provides a dynamic center to the play, balancing piss-elegant airs with anxiety that peeks through the put-together facade. And if the actor can’t quite dignify the maudlin excesses of the final scenes, it takes nothing away from the strength and focus of his volatile perf. Isola also impresses as the buddy whose motives for sticking around through so much verbal abuse remain in question, and Rowatt brings soulful depths to the fellow traveler most inclined to empathize with Alan. The sincerity of Hank and Larry’s love, despite their possibly irreconcilable differences, is the play’s most moving aspect. Innvar balances the brittle edges with warmer notes as Larry. Wellmann makes the most of his many zingers as the sassy flamer, while Morrow’s Bernard is more grounded than might be expected from the cliche of a black man carrying a torch for the wealthy white boy from the family for whom his mother did laundry. Westrate can’t make much of his bland character, and Aaron Sharff as the dumb “cowboy” hustler procured for Harold’s enjoyment is stiff in the wrong ways. As for the party’s abrasive guest of honor, Levenson perhaps makes an error in sticking so close to the template of Leonard Frey, who originated the role and reprised it in the movie. But, like the play itself, he’s fascinating nonetheless. When Harold spits out some vicious truths at Michael before heading home to bed with his gift package, it reads less as a condemnation of homosexuality than of his friend’s refusal to accept himself. And that makes “The Boys in the Band” seem somewhat less politically inappropriate than people generally think.