June 9, 2018

Guest Blogger: My Buddy Bill Recalls His Days as One of "The Boys in the Band" and Assesses The Play's Starry Broadway Revival

A note from Jan: Two people can see the same show and walk away with different feelings about it. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I just saw the new production of The Boys in the Band that marks the show's much-delayed Broadway debut. I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly Zachary Quinto's performance. Bill liked the show a little less and Quinto a lot less.  But I'm turning this week's post over to Bill because he has a personal history with the show that makes his thoughts about it far more interesting than mine:

Though I've never met Mart Crowley, whose 50-year-old hit The Boys in the Band is just now making its Broadway debut, I've always wanted to thank him. Thank him partly because in 1968 the then-new play was groundbreaking in its onstage depiction of gay men's lives. Thank him even more because when I acted in a production of it nearly 49 ago, the show's lead role was played by the man who would become my life partner, until his death. 

George and I met on Nov. 10, 1969, the first day of rehearsal for a production of Boys that was to play Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse. It would be one of the first productions of the play performed outside of New York City, where the original was still playing (that's a photo from our production above).

The now defunct Coconut Grove was one of three Florida playhouses that were part of a "winter stock" circuit. The other two were Ft. Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse and the Royal Poinciana, in Palm Beach. Every year, star-driven plays were performed at all three theaters. I mention this only because it was a sign of those times that the Parker and the Royal Poinciana declined to take our Boys. Their managements, we were told, were afraid of their patrons' reactions, given what was then considered too-controversial material—not only homosexuality but plentiful profanity. Audiences, the two theaters feared, would protest. Or worse, they wouldn't show up.

How wrong they were. Our run at the Coconut Grove, a mere three weeks, was virtually SRO. 

When Jan asked me to a performance of this Broadway Boys, whose limited run ends Aug. 11, I was curious: Would the play—whose original production opened off-Broadway on April 14, 1968, to wild acclaim and celebrity-filled audiences (Rudolf Nureyev, Jackie Kennedy, Groucho Marx, etc.) and ran for more than 1,000 performances—still work after 50 years? Would it still be both funny and moving? Was it even relevant now, given the societal gains of the LGBT community since its debut? And how would today’s audiences receive it, considering that in recent years the play has often been the subject of complaints that Crowley's characters (based on people he knew) are depicted in ways that are either offensive or unrealistic—or both? 

The setup of Boys is simple enough. In his lavish New York City apartment, Michael, an angsty 30-year-old gay man who lives above his means, throws a small birthday party for his best friend, Harold. Though the four invited guests are Harold's friends, Michael knows them too. The play’s nine-member cast is filled out by three other men—Michael's close friend Donald, also gay, who comes into the city once a week to see his psychiatrist; a gay hustler, a gift for Harold from one of the guests; and Alan, Michael's former college roommate, who early in the play phones Michael, apparently in such distress that Michael reluctantly invites him to come over for what he hopes will be a quick therapeutic talk. Alan, a married man with children, is presumed by Michael to be straight.

Alan's arrival, though, and his eventual physical attack on the flamboyant Emory, turns the party into a debacle. What's more, the sexuality of Alan himself comes into question: Is he in distress because he has come to realize he's gay? Crowley's play leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered. 

This 50th anniversary production of Boys has been neatly cut down from two acts to one by Crowley and the show’s expert, openly gay director Joe Mantello, whose production of Wicked is still running on Broadway after nearly 15 years and whose revival of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, starring the veteran Glenda Jackson, is a current Broadway hit (click here to read more about him). 

Even more significantly, the play boasts that its cast are all "out" gay men, three of them nationally known: Jim Parsons (from TV's "The Big Bang Theory"), who plays Michael; Matt Bomer (TV's "White Collar," the "Magic Mike" movies"), as Donald; and Zachary Quinto (Spock in the revived "Star Trek"  movie franchise), as birthday-boy Harold (click here to read more about the casting). 

While these high-profile stars are no doubt the reason for all the attention the production has gotten, their casting is only partially successful. Bomer is solidly ear- and eye-pleasing, playing Donald simply and sincerely while getting all his laughs. Quinto is less successful: Though extraordinarily fine in previous New York stage appearances (revivals of Angels in America and The Glass Menagerie), he wears his showy character like a suit of clothes rather than inhabiting him. 

Most disappointing is Parsons’ Michael. Early in Boys we learn that he has been sober for five weeks. After Alan's attack on Emory, though, Michael loses it: He starts drinking again, giving in to his darker, uglier side. Up to this point, Parsons’ comic performance has been nearly impeccable. But now, in the play’s more somber second half, he fails to command the stage, as the character must. 

Nor does he fully summon up either the ferocious anger or inhumanity Michael should display towards his guests as they play a humiliating game he forces on them all. Finally, and perhaps fatally for the play, Parsons insufficiently embodies Michael’s regret and self-hatred, when at the play’s climax he breaks down in an aria of regret and anguish. What comes out of Parsons is not a torrent of emotion but a mere rivulet.

We are thus denied the catharsis that a first-rate production of Boys can provide. 

A few years ago, the acclaimed playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, a longtime friend of both George’s and mine, belatedly asked how we two had met. When I told him that it was in a production of The Boys in the Band, his response was instant: “That was an important play." I have no doubt that it still is. It presents us with a vivid picture of what life was like for some (though by no means all) gay men some 50 years ago, even as we can now ponder how much life for such gay men has changed in the last half century. 

But though I believe that the play itself holds up, this production doesn’t quite make it for me. While the boys are funny as ever, the tragedy of this band is too much missing. 

June 2, 2018

Mixed Blessings in "Our Lady of 121st Street"

Although separated by five centuries and different codes of acceptable onstage profanity, the playwrights William Shakespeare and Stephen Adly Guirgis have a lot in common. Wait; hear me out.

Both writers share a love of language and a knack for a piquant turn of phrase.  Each wrote with the politics of his time decidedly in mind. And both wrote for a company of actors who were friends as well as colleagues and whose professional talents and personal tics helped shape the characters each playwright crafted for them. 

All of that is on flamboyant display in the entertaining, if not entirely satisfying, revival of Guirgis' Our Lady of 121st Street, which is running in Signature Theatre Company's Irene Diamond space through June 17. 

The play is ostensibly about a group of people gathering for the wake of a nun who was a significant figure in their lives when they were young. But Guirguis seems to have been most motivated by the fact that it was originally to be performed by the LAByrinth Theater Company, a group founded in 1992 to provide challenging work for an ethnically diverse troupe of theater artists who wanted to do plays about contemporary life. 

Over the years, members of LAByrinth have include Bobby Cannavale, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Deirdre O'Connell, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Michael Shannon and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who for a time served as artistic director and major funder. Guirguis, who eventually emerged as the playwriting voice for the group, created roles that would speak to the talents of its company members and showy speeches that actors everywhere should prize.

I first saw Our Lady of 121st Street when it ran at the Union Square Theater back in 2003 and, in all honesty, I didn't know what the hell was going on. The play opens inside a Harlem funeral home where a barelegged guy is loudly and profanely complaining that someone has stolen his pants—and the nun's body out of her casket. Then, things gets even more bizarre.

The gathering would-be mourners—who include but are not limited to a cop investigating the thefts, a disaffected priest taking confessions, a radio deejay and his still angry ex-wife, a closeted gay attorney and his needy lover and a local building super who cares for his mentally handicapped brother—seemed at moments too unconnected to one another and at others too quick to hook up with one another.  

But, having seen and enjoyed other Guirguis works like The Motherfucker with A Hat and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy, I went in with different expectations this time. And although Our Lady's structural problems remain, I left with a smile on my face.  

That's due in large part to the bravura performances of the show's 12-member cast, all of whom bite into Guirgis' rich dialog with the gusto of carbo-deprived dieters coming off the Whole30 program. And director Phylica Rashad smartly gets out of their way and lets her actors have at it.

Two of the juiciest roles are the deejay Rooftop and his ex Inez, characters originally tailored to the prodigious talents of the always-soulful Ron Cephus Jones and the fierce, solo-named actress Portia. I'm not sure I would have thought of either Hill Harper or Quincy Tyler Bernstine to step into their shoes but I would have been wrong.

Harper, who has specialized in playing sensitive pretty boys in TV procedurals like "CSI:NY," is sensational as Rooftop, a fast-talking charmer who's proud of his success but ashamed of what it cost to get there. Harper is particularly adept with Guirguis' hilarious patter and the air crackles whenever he's onstage. 

Bernstine has made a career out of playing humble yet strong women and so it was an extra treat to see her break loose as the boozy, sexy and politically incorrect Inez—and doing it without sacrificing an ounce of the character's underlying pathos.  

Guirguis' plot doesn't really take them or their cohorts anywhere and the performances don't coalesce into a convincing whole but they do provide a cavalcade of affecting scenes studies in which lost souls struggle to find meaning in their lives. 

If Shakespeare had written Our Lady of 121st Street, scholars would call it a problem play. But, as fans of the Bard know, even those shows have their pleasures and this one has at least a dozen of them.

May 26, 2018

Taking Time Out, Sort Of...

No show reviews this week.  And no real good excuse for not doing one, except that the weather is suddenly beautiful and I feel like kicking back and taking it easy. But I haven't been entirely slothful. As you may have heard, I (along with the terrific theater writer Jeremy Gerard) have been named a contributor to Broadway News and my first column was posted Thursday morning.  You can check it out here.

Later that day, my husband K and I went to the Outer Critics Circle Awards dinner. Since the winners are announced before the ceremony, the honorees come prepared with great speeches. Norbert Leo Butz, a winner for his delightful turn as Alfred P. Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater's revival of My Fair Lady, should probably get another award for getting things off to an hilarious start by thanking a litany of pain relievers for their support in making his high-energy dance numbers possible. Others gave speeches that were also funny, heartwarming but, most of all, genuine in their appreciation for the recognition—and for being able to do what they love. You can find out more about the ceremony here.

And then this morning, BroadwayRadio posted the latest episode of my Stagecraft podcast in which I talk to playwrights about their shows currently running both on and off Broadway.  My guest this week is Clare Barron, whose play Dance Nation has been drawing raves and has been extended at Playwrights Horizons through July 1. Barron is just as entertaining and irreverent as her play is and you can hear what she has to say by clicking here.

I'll return to regular posting next week.  In the meantime, hope you both enjoy the holiday weekend and take a little time out to remember and appreciate its true significance as a time to honor those who gave their lives for this country, whose principles, particularly in the most challenging times, are worth defending.

May 19, 2018

The Unabashed Confessions of a "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" Fangirl

My name is Jan and I'm a Harry Potter fangirl. Seriously. I mean I pre-ordered the published script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Amazon, downloaded the Kindle version on the day it came out last July, devoted a couple of uninterrupted hours to reading it that same afternoon and then set up a Google alert to notify me when I could buy tickets to the stage version when the show transferred from London's West End to Broadway's newly renovated Lyric Theatre.

I fell under Harry Potter's spell 20 years ago when the first of the seven books in J.K. Rowling's series about the education of a boy wizard was published in the U.S. I clearly wasn't the intended audience but its enchanted world swept me up and I turned my teenage niece Jennifer onto the book. We went through the rest of the series together, reading each installment as soon as it came out. We watched the movies that made Daniel Radcliffe a star too, or at least most of them since the final ones grew a little tedious.

So both Jennifer, now herself the mother of a two-year-old, and I were excited and nervous about the prospect of seeing our beloved Harry's world brought to life on a stage. We left totally delighted by what we'd seen.

Playwright Jack Thorne, working off a story devised along with Rowling, and director John Tiffany have created a two-part, five-hour saga that extends the coda at the end of the final book. It's a smart idea, playing directly to the Gen Yers, who grew up reading and loving the Potter books. Like them, Harry is now an adult. He's married with three kids and working for the Ministry of Magic, where his old friend Hermione is the top minister and married to their old pal Ron.

The show opens with the three friends and Harry's wife Ginny at the train station, preparing to send their own kids off to the wizarding school Hogwarts. Hermione and Ron's daughter Rose can't wait to start there but Harry's middle son Albus, named for the famed former headmaster of the school, is more reluctant.

 A loner, Albus has never adjusted to being the son of a famous father. That creates a bond between him and another lonely boy wrestling with his family's legacy, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry's one-time nemesis Draco who is in disgrace for having been a follower of the evil wizard Voldemort, whom Harry vanquished at the end of the books.

The play's plot is a convoluted tale about the two boys' clumsy attempts to use a time traveling machine to change a tragic incident in the past. It's hard even for Potterheads, who cheer loudly whenever a familiar name or place is mentioned, to follow what's going on. But plot is just a maguffin for Rowling who has always been far more interested in the atmospheric setting of the world she created and the emotional connections between the people who populate it.

Thorne (click here to read an interview with him) and Tiffany remain true to that spirit.  But even audience members who come without knowing the difference between Hogwarts and Azkaban (a guide and glossary are included in the program to help out) can appreciate the magic they've created onstage.

Characters disappear right in front of our eyes. Others fly through the air, without any apparent support. Ghostly apparitions float throughout the theater. The how-did-they-do-that sleight of hand was crafted by the illusionist Jamie Harrison and is supportively lit by Neil Austin. Meanwhile, the master movement maker Steven Hoggett choreographs such brilliant sequences that he picked up one of the show's 10 Tony nominations even though Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't a musical.

The show seems destined to pick up a bunch of Tonys when they're given out on June 10. Some critics are gripping that it doesn't deserve the prize for Best Play because, they say, the sensational stagecraft obscures a sappy story. But I was moved by the struggles of the play's fathers and sons to connect with one another. And I thought the final scene was a perfect way to end the saga. 

Much of the credit for that must go to the show's top-notch cast. And although it's unfair to single out any of the principal players, I'm going to do it anyway and cheer Anthony Boyle who brings both humor and poignancy to the role of the towheaded Scorpius and is a frontrunner for the Tony for best actor in a featured role (click here to read an interview with him).

I'm also cheering Noma Dumezweni's wise and warm performance as Hermione. Some fans complained when Dumezweni, a black Brit of South African descent, was originally cast in the role but the noise quieted down after Rowling tweeted her wholehearted support for that decision and Dumezweni's Tony-nominated performance should please all but the most retrograde naysayers (click here to read more about her).

The offstage experience is fun too. Some audience members—both kids and adults—show up in costume and parade around the lobby as their favorite characters. And I was even charmed by the renovation of the Lyric, which use to look cold and unwelcoming but now resembles a cozy Victorian-era theater. However some people have complained about problems with the narrow steps in the center aisle that have caused a few audience members, including the 93-year-old critic John Simon, to fall (click here to read about that) so watch where you walk if you go.

Although going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't easy either. The producers are using a verified ticketing system so that purchasers have to register and then, after being approved, have to join an online queue to buy tickets when blocks of them are released for sale. The tickets aren't cheap either, since you have to buy both parts. And yet, it's money well spent. I've already got seats to see it again later this summer. Like I said, I'm a fan.