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. 

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