It’s taken 35 years for Mart Crowley to pen a sequel to “The Boys in the Band” — a span longer than the original ages of its characters. But arrived-at-last “The Men From the Boys” shows that misery still loves company. Actually, a lack of significant change is one of “Men’s” many significant problems. Why on earth have Michael, Harold, Emory & co. remained friends all this while when their interaction still consists primarily of camping, backstabbing and bitch-quipping at one another’s expense? Time has stood all too still among them, and this decidedly mixed bag of a play (premiering at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theater Center in artistic director Ed Decker’s production) itself too often seems annoyed that the rest of the world has moved on.
The original 1968 “Boys” has been celebrated as a hugely influential taboo-breaker and derided as an unmediated expression of the homosexual self-loathing that hobbles its pre-Stonewall characters. By now it’s certainly a part of theatrical (gay or otherwise) folklore, even those unpleasant or dated aspects fascinating as a time capsule.
Billed as “a sequel play,” “Men” intrigues with the possibilities of seeing just how that original crew of NYC gay men held up through subsequent waves of gay liberation, the AIDS epidemic, middle age and domestic partnerships successful or otherwise. That’s Crowley’s stated agenda; but instead he’s penned a work in which the same characters end up defined mostly by the degree to which they’ve resisted 35 years of social and potential personal change. Most remain single, predatory and emotionally unsuited for serious relationships; age has only made more sour the bitter edge to all those snap-queen putdowns. As much as ever, younger outsiders are viewed with hunger and resentment as mere “trade.”
The occasion for revisiting chez Michael (Russ Duffy) is that original “band” member Larry has just died of pancreatic cancer. After the funeral service, all old hands and a few new ones assemble at the same Manhattan apartment that once housed “Band’s” shouting matches. Not-so-nice zingers are soon being slung.
Nobody likes Scott (Olen Christian Holm), the sulky pretty boy Michael has “adopted.” When not angrily defending this foundling, unreconstructed king-of-self-hate Michael spews at most everyone else. His fave target today is Jason (Owen Thomas), a strident young activist who had a running affair with Larry. Uberqueeny Emory (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and bilious Harold (Will Huddleston) hurl cutting quips hither and yon.
Providing some noncombative players amid the fray are increasingly sozzled if harmless Donald (Peter Carlstrom), the sole remaining active alcoholic; Bernard (Lewis Sims), who surprises all by announcing he’s become bisexual and married a woman; plus one more youngster, Rick (Rajiv Shah), a male nurse who’d cared for, then fallen secretly in love with, the late Larry.
Again unfolding in “real time,” “Men” also shares its predecessor’s tendency to use characters as authorial mouthpieces, for sentiments that now have the additional crankiness of Grumpy Old Manhood. “Listen, kiddo, before there were marches, there was a band!” Emory snaps when Jason dares brandish some younger-generation ego. Such latter-day icons as Larry Kramer, Andrew Sullivan and Stephen Sondheim are dissed in gratuitous asides. Less excusable as nostalgia is the excess of racial jokes. They get duly critiqued as “politically incorrect,” but seem depressingly insistent nonetheless.
For every witticism that hits a bull’s-eye, there are at least two gag lines that come off too canned, or simply aren’t very funny. The play is never dull, but the seasoned depth one expects from people and relationships we’ve met before isn’t generally forthcoming.
Decker’s production lacks a viable ensemble rhythm. Admittedly, the deliberate artifice of Crowley’s dialogue makes that task a challenge. But there’s little air circulating onstage as performers fill the cramped proscenium space (and somewhat ill-conceived apartment set), often simply striking a pose while waiting for their next line.
Not surprisingly, given that central figure Michael gets by far the most authorial attention here, the best acting comes from a poisonous yet occasionally poignant Duffy. Other thesps range from the overarching to the adequate, all straitjacketed by limited character insight and development.