The photo on the front of the program for the Transport Group’s revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is somewhat misleading. Seven of the cast members are shown literally bursting through the doors of a closet with broad smiles and giddy dispositions. Only one cast member, tucked ominously in the fetal position on the closet shelf above the rest, hints at the dark depths of this seminal gay drama. This production is both a laugh-filled and emotionally fraught showcase of a landmark piece of theater. According to their mission statement, the not-for-profit Transport Group Theatre Company (Normal, The Audience) is “dedicated to developing and producing works by American playwrights and composers that explore the American consciousness in the 20th and 21st centuries.” The Boys in the Band certainly fits the bill. First produced in 1968 one year before the Stonewall riots and the birth of the modern gay liberation movement, Mart Crowley’s dramedy about a birthday party gone horribly wrong was the first successful contemporary play that featured (mostly) uncloseted men. According to Playbill.com, it ran for 1,000 performances in its original Off-Broadway production. It was also made into a 1970 film by director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Cruising, The French Connection) starring the original cast of unknowns.
The shadow of that film hangs heavy over the Transport Group artistic director Jack Cummings III’s new version. The celluloid Boys in the Band is practically de rigueur for queens of a certain age and virtually queens of all ages. Filled with bitchy bon mots, the script overflows with what I like to call “quotential” — delicious lines that can be quoted out of context and thrown into conversation for guaranteed laughs.
The plot is simple. Harold, the self-described “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy,” is turning 32. His best frenemy, Michael, is throwing him a birthday party that brings together a motley crew of gay men in his stylish downtown apartment. The arrival of Michael’s former college roommate — a straight-laced, married man — starts the booze and insults flowing, culminating in what can only be called a harrowing group therapy session.
This new version has the novelty of being site-specific, and located in gay-centric Chelsea no less. The performance takes place in a penthouse studio apartment designed to time capsule perfection by Sandra Goldmark. The 99 audience members sit around the set like party wallflowers. (Note to the micro-bladdered: The show runs two hours without intermission and there is no re-entry since the “front door” of the apartment is also the entrance/exit for the actors.)
Critics and audiences alike have often commented on the supposed self-loathing of the characters, and this revival of Boys in the Band will not silence them. These are gay archetypes — the flamboyant queen, the bookish neurotic, the fresh-out-of-the-closet homosexual — and drama is after all filled with stock characters. What most theatergoers probably want to know most is whether the show holds up over 40 years later. The answer is yes — and no. The Boys in the Band is still a terrific text for scenery-chewing actors that generates a bundle of laughs and even a fear tears.
The mostly gay, mostly middle-aged audience at the Sunday matinee I attended most likely had previous knowledge of the show, but that in no way interfered with the enjoyment of the play in the here and now. Kevin Isola unleashed a closetful of emotions as the college roommate Alan who crashes the party, deftly weaving the character’s ambiguous sexuality into his portrayal. Graham Rowat as the straight-acting teacher Hank and John Wellmann as über-queen Emory were pitch-perfect. Special notice should also be given to Jonathan Hammond, who brilliantly navigates the tricky waters from hopeful sobriety to ugly drunkenness in the lead as Michael. His role is the most problematic and, in many ways, the most unsympathetic, but Hammond brings an empathy-stirring pathos to Michael that saves the show from maudlin sentimentalism.
Which brings us finally to the scene-stealing character of Harold. Jon Levenson looks the part, attacks the part, and has fabulous comic timing, but I felt like instead of making the role his own, he was simply mimicking the iconic performance of Leonard Frey from the original cast. Harold still gets most of the best lines and the biggest laughs, but the shadow of Frey looms over Levenson, as do the forever-on-celluloid characterizations of all the roles.
Seeing The Boys in the Band live on-stage, literally trapped at the party, one can’t help but feel the urge to flee as the tension rises and the laughs surrender to vitriol. And one can’t help but ask why the partygoers endure such personal attacks without either fighting back or simply leaving. As the shell-shocked audience filed out at the end of the show, I wasn’t the only one who voiced this common refrain: “I need a drink.”