We view art through a lens that includes social context. It’s the reason you can see a movie or a painting or a play multiple times and have different reactions. As I explained yesterday, two classics became problem plays in light of the raucous atmosphere that has been generated over the past year and a half by the powers that be.
It’s ironic then that two other shows, both of them lying precariously on the second tier of drama and musical theatre, have gained such emotional traction in stunning new productions (one of which, I believe, has improved upon the original). Their presence on Broadway – whether intended or not – offers a profound response to the madness currently being inflicted upon us by an inept leader and a party dominated by extremists.
I went into Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band with a lot of preconceived notions. It is considered a seminal piece of gay theatrical history – not because it is one of the best plays to chronicle the lives of homosexual men, but because it was one of the first. It first came out when I was twelve, and I don’t think I read it until I had finished high school. When I finally tackled the play, both in print and on the movie screen, it was not with a critical eye but with the sensibilities of a young man struggling to come out. To say the least, Crowley does not paint a pretty picture of the gay lifestyle.
There’s the “scale of masculinity,” ranging from married men Hank and Alan to the fabulous Emory, who by the 1970’s when gay men started to really hit the gym, must have made a lot of them nervous with his effeminacy. There’s the “sexual partner scale” ranging from monogamy (uh, . . . nobody in this play?) vs. rampant promiscuity, with a focus on how two lovers in the modern gay world negotiate the parameters of their relationship. There’s the issue of attraction, where guys give themselves extra points for good looks and those who are less handsome compensate with wit of the most vicious kind.
Worst of all, though, is the rampant self-loathing, mostly embodied by the main character, Michael and his frenemy Harold, whose birthday provides the catalyst for the gathering we witness. These two men hate themselves more than they profess to hating each other, and their vitriol, to say the least, drags this party down. It’s painful to watch – but it’s also a bit artificial. When late in the story, Michael invents a party game along the lines of “I-dare-you-to-call-the-person-you-love-more-than-anyone-else-and-tell-them-how-you-feel,” it feels like a tactic out of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced six years earlier, a trick designed to give each character a dramatic “moment” of torment.
In other words, I’m not sure if it’s even a good play, no matter how culturally significant its existence may be. Still, I was interested in seeing Boys because of its impressive cast of talented, successful, openly gay actors and because I have enjoyed everything I have been fortunate enough to see directed by Joe Mantello. He has cut the play down to one act, but I don’t know the piece well enough to know what has changed. I only know that I was leery of spending even ninety minutes watching a bunch of gay men hate themselves and each other.
Yet, while the loathing is there (and, contrary to the NYTimes reviewer’s opinion, Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto as, respectively, Michael and Harold, are not miscast but deliver excoriating performances), this production also documents scenes of friendship, acts of kindness, support and love, both romantic and erotic, and a hundred subtle interchanges that hint at why these seemingly disparate men are friends. In short, while the play forces them to wear their sexuality like a badge, or armor, or a hairsuit, depending on their feelings of self-worth, we also come to realize that they are not defined solely by their preference, but by their jobs, their life experiences, their choices.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Matt Bomer makes his Broadway debut as Donald, Michael’s ex-lover and best friend. He spends much of the show in the corners of the gorgeous plexiglass set, watching the others and trying to keep his buddy from self-detonating. (He also gets naked, and I mention this not because it was extremely pleasurable – which it was – but because part of gay culture has always promoted physical health and beauty. This may seem an ironic statement, given the medical torments inflicted on the community over the past forty years, but Bomer’s appearance represents a sort of physical ideal that, in the age of Queer Eye, men of every persuasion have embraced.
Tuc Watkins is handsome and moving as Hank, the newly divorced guy with hot boyfriend Andrew Rannells in tow, trying to navigate through a world with brand new rules. Robin de Jesus is revelatory as Emory, giving warmth and dignity to a role that I fretted over when I first read this play and didn’t understand that embracing my own gayness is an internal concept, not a matter of outward presentation. And Brian Hutchison is moving as Michael’s college roommate, who crashes the party and struggles to separate himself from the other men who may represent his own hidden side.
There’s no doubt that watching any production of Boys, even one as funny as this, brings up a lot of painful stuff. It doesn’t take much for these guys to go to some dark places. Even the comedy relief character of Cowboy, the very hot but kinda dumb young hustler bought as a birthday gift for Harold, gets a zinger of an exit line to remind you he’s human, too. And in the end, when Michael forces his “straight” friend Allan to confront his own ambivalent feelings, it became clear to me that, in trying to out his old buddy, Michael has stuffed Alan miserably back in the closet.
I hope this reminds everyone who watches it of what happens when you try to tamp down a person’s truth. As the Supreme Court inches toward a new generation of conservatism and fear springs up that all the advances made for LGBTQ people in the last decade may be threatened, The Boys in the Bandserves as a reminder of our shameful past of exclusion and persecution, and the price that generations of good people have paid because of it.
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There’s a lyric in Once on This Island, Lynn Ahren and Steven Flaherty’s first Broadway show, which is enjoying a remarkable – I want to call it a reinvention rather than a revival – at the Circle in the Square. It’s from a history lesson about the island where two different communities of black citizens uneasily co-exist, the light-skinned Beauxhommes and the dark-skinned peasant class, who sing: “They despise us for our blackness. It reminds them where they’re from.” That line alone connects this musical to the, by now, almost daily reminders that America is still plagued with racism. The rants caught on camera of white people lashing out at those of color, the poverty, the violence, the separation of Mexican children from their parents at the border . . . none of this is new. What I have never seen before is the attempted normalization of these feelings by the leader of the free world and his cronies.
I directed this show at school four years ago. When you pay for the rights, you are informed that although the play was written to address a racial divide, the authors have given consent for schools without a large black population to change certain lyrics that alter the story to one about a class divide. Given the population of kids I work with, I had to make these changes. And without knocking the lovely, talented cast I had, after watching the New York production, I am convinced that the show loses most of its power and its magic when these changes are made.
Perhaps this is more evident due to the structure of this production. The audience arrives early and sits in the round to watch a little girl on a sandy beach, surrounded by chickens, a goat, and the accoutrement of island living. Slowly, the residents of this community enter and begin their daily work: cooking meals (God, the food smelled delicious!), fishing, tending to the sick, herding that goat. And they interacted with the audience and each other, laughing, arguing, stealing a character’s phone and accidentally tossing it into the sea. It was one of the most joyful pre-shows I have ever seen.
And then a storm comes, and the little girl cowers under a box in fright. One of the older women approaches her and explains in vivid storybook fashion why the storm has come. And thus, the actual play begins. Each community member transforms into the characters of this tale, the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl, who falls in love with Daniel, a member of the gentry class. When Ti Moune becomes the focus of a bet between the goddess of love and the god of death, the story takes on a mythological importance and yet never stops being about real people and constantly reminding us that true contentment only happens when we take down walls, not build them up. Ya hear that, Mr. Trump?
The story is told using the household items strewn about the stage. The sand gets kicked about. Things get dirty. It’s all marvelous. The male death demon was played by a woman, and the earth mother goddess was played by a man because . . . well, because gods can do whatever they want! And it worked beautifully, as did the casting of every other member of this company – even the goat! I found myself leaning forward in my seat throughout, wishing I could jump out of my chair and join the story. Fortunately, the actors came to us, enveloping the entire audience in their spell.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a small gathering at my friend Virginia’s house to watch the Tony Awards. We held a contest to see who could come up with the most correct number of winners. Virginia and I tied for first (but she let me have the candy bar prize!) One of the few answers I got wrong was “Best Revival.” I thought it would go to My Fair Lady; instead it went to Once on This Island. Having had the opportunity to see all three nominees (Carouselwas the third), I concur that this time the Tony voters got it completely right. Thus, it was sad to see that the house was half full, indicating that this show might close soon. It was the last show I saw on my trip, and it sent me away from Broadway on a terrific high.
Next chapter: Strangers in a Strange Land, or One of the Best Days I’ve Ever Spent in the Theatre