Friday, July 13, 2018

Theatre Droppings: Oh Mary, Don't Ask

Confetti and balloons, cake and dancing, hilarious quips and bawdy bon mots. There's even a parlor game.  Who wouldn't have fun at a festive celebration like this? Turns out, NOBODY has fun.  Welcome to Harold's birthday party.
This poster for the 1970 film was
banned by many newspapers
across the country. A more subtle
poster replaced it (it's below)
One of the buzziest shows in New York this summer is a 50 year old play considered to be a ground-breaker, finally making its Broadway debut.  The Boys in the Band opened in a tiny hole-in-the-wall performance space in Greenwich Village back in 1968; it ran over 1000 performances and put gay characters front and center before mainstream audiences.  At its opening, the play was celebrated as the first realistic illustration of the modern gay lifestyle.  About a year into its run, the show ran into some trouble.  
A pre-Exorcist William Friedkin saw this original production, and signed on to direct the movie version, with one condition: that the full original cast recreate their roles on film. He needn't have made such a demand. No Hollywood agent or manager would have allowed a client to go anywhere near this thing, and even the New York actors involved were told playing gay would end their careers.
Michael hosts a party for Harold. These two thoroughly
nasty queens create the dramatic stimuli of the play.
In 1969, a group of ragtag drag queens, hustlers, and other gay undesirables were harassed by police during a raid on a dive bar called The Stonewall Inn.  Several days of rioting ensued, and the modern gay rights movement was ignited.  This movement encouraged homosexuals to be proud of their identities, rather than to be ashamed, and to this day, celebrations of homosexual and gender fluid identities all carry the label of PRIDE.  
The Boys in Mart Crowley's play are anything but prideful. Quite the opposite, these nine characters are filled with self-hatred and shame regarding their sexuality. During a booze-filled evening right out of the Edward Albee playbook, they punish each other for their own feelings of self-loathing. (Though Michael never says it, he is playing "Get The Guests" better than Virginia Woolf''s George and Martha)
Is Boys in the Band an honest examination of a generation of
gay men forced to remain in the closet except in hidden bars,
bathhouses, and the occasional Saturday night birthday party?
Or does it offer a highly limited view of gay society in the late
60s, portraying gay men as psychologically damaged, haunted
and ashamed?
Gay activists such as the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, disowned the bitchy, sad, and fairly unpleasant characters portrayed in The Boys in the Band.  So our Boys became controversial not only in the mainstream, but also among the gay community; this controversy continues today.

I didn't know anything about this controversy when I first became aware of The Boys in the Band, when, at age 13, I opened the Sunday edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and saw this movie ad:  
As a pre-teen in the Deep South, I had no knowledge of the provocative Off-Broadway play depicting homosexuals; I never even knew the Stonewall riots had happened.  But something about this poster told me I needed to see this movie.  It was rated R.  I was not able to see the film until several years later, and it has remained my only exposure to The Boys in the Band until last week, when I saw it for the first time onstage.
The first thing I can report about the Broadway production of Boys in the Band is this: it's friggin' hilarious.  Somehow, the same text which comes off as vicious on film becomes enjoyably flippant onstage, at least initially.  
Director Joe Mantello is not stupid.If you have a specimen
like Matt Bomer in your gay play, you strip him to his
underwear as soon as possible. This first scene between
besties Donald and Michael plays like a dream,
 endearing both men to us,until Parsons's Michael
 picks up a gin bottle and turns into Mr. Hyde.
Congratulations in no small part must go to director Joe Mantello, who has guided his cast to mine the laughs, and they have struck gold.  The first half of the show (in what used to be its first act; playwright Mart Crowley has wisely trimmed the play a bit and removed the intermission) feels like Terrence McNally wrote it. Jim Parsons as Michael, the leading character, knows his way around comedy, and his first scene, opposite Matt Bomer, is full of laughs. 
Robin de Jesus as flameboy Emory, Michael
Benjamin Washington as token black Bernard,and
Andrew Rannells as promiscuous Larry, all add to
the festive atmosphere of the first half. This party
would have been such fun, if the host hadn't
torpedoed his own event by showing that queers
are not just self-hating, they're also self-
We like these men immediately, and that fond feeling extends to the other Boys, as Andrew Rannells, Robin de Jesus, and Tuc Watkins join the party. I was joyfully able to put aside my distaste for this text and start to recognize that perhaps the original play can be treated simply as a period piece.

Except it can't.  Many gay men of the generation depicted in this play have accused the playwright of displaying some very nasty stereotypes, as if all gay men of the period felt the same self-loathing expressed by the play's lead character, Michael.  There is a  seminal quote from Michael which is difficult to defend: "If only we could learn to stop hating ourselves so much."  This is an exclamation difficult to justify, and one which I have trouble overlooking. 
Once Michael (Jim Parsons) picks up that gin bottle, he turns from a charming and witty host into a vicious annihilator. He slings racial, ethnic, and anti-Semitic slurs at his guests, and conducts a party game aimed to humiliate the players. This sudden shift in character was very difficult to accept from Parsons, who did not handle this arc as well as the originator of the role, Kenneth Nelson. When the party is finally wrecked and done, Michael himself has a breakdown. As he recovers himself, he utters the sentiment which has alienated large portions of the gay population for decades; "If only we could stop hating ourselves so much."
Leonard Frey and Kenneth Nelson, as Harold and Michael,
delivered two indelible performances in the film, pretty much
steamrolling the other actors; it's hard to remember much
about any of the others.
Michael indeed seems to be a self-hating homo, and I have no problem with such a character being portrayed onstage, we've seen many of them over the years.  But he doesn't speak only of himself; he doesn't say "If only I could learn to stop hating MYself so much." He says "We" and "OURselves," suggesting to the world that all gay men despise themselves.  This is not true today, nor was it true in 1968. 
"These are really Harold's friends," our host Michael explains before the birthday party begins. Really? We'll have to take that as a leap of faith, as there is scarce evidence that anybody has a friend in this room.  I keep wondering, what is it that holds this group together?  There doesn't seem to be much actual friendship apparent, in fact quite the opposite, as the evening progresses.  And once the host turns from hospitable to hostile, why oh why do all these guys stay?? It takes a huge leap of logic to accept that all these guys sit still and take the abuse Michael dishes out. I wonder if playwright Crowley was attempting to show that gays tend to form their own ad hoc families, and will take all sorts of crap from them?  Crowley's contemporary Terrence McNally (they are only 3 years apart in age) did exactly that 25 years later.  McNally wrote his own version of Boys in the BandLove! Valour! Compassion! succeeded in showing a group of 8 gay men gathering in celebration, and while there is PLENTY of queeny bitch-talk in that play, there is never any doubt that the group loves each other.  I'm not sure the boys in Crowley's band even like each other very much.
I have huge respect for these two actors. I've seen Zachary Quinto onstage in The Glass Menagerie, and he's got the
goods. Jim Parsons has won multiple Emmys and even better, appears to be an actor of  intelligence and gentility. As with all the actors in this production, they are conducting their careers as out gay men. So I'm disappointed to report that their performances are the least convincing in the play. 
Though the performances surrounding them cannot be faulted, I'm sorry to say that I was disappointed in the work of stars Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. Parsons has a congenial quality which simply cannot sustain the vicious behavior of his character Michael. And Quinto's entrance late in the play actually saps the energy in the room.  
Birthday boy Harold (Quinto) meets his "gift," the hustler called Cowboy. This is Harold's entrance into the play; we've been hearing about this character for almost an hour, and he arrives just after a climactic moment of physical violence which has shocked the audience.  Structurally, these early moments are needed to re-center the energy of the play, and set it off into its new, darker direction.  It's a very tricky moment, it's where the intermission used to be. Quinto's languid, reptilian way of moving and speaking does not give the play the new boost it needs, in fact it seems a lot of the energy already created by the other actors is sucked out of the room when Quinto takes over.
The real surprise in the second part of this play comes from one of my favorite stage actors, Andrew Rannells. 

He is playing Larry, a role which was quite forgettable in the film, one half of the only gay couple in the piece.  Larry is the guy who picks up a different trick every night and has no desire to settle into a hetero-normative  relationship. 

Tuc Watkins makes his Broadway debut in the role of the
straight-appearing Hank. Tuc is proof that many so-called
"soap studs" are gay; he spent years as the resident hunk on
One Life to Live. His performance here is grounded and
But he has reluctantly fallen for the conservative Hank, a school teacher with kids who has recently left his wife but is looking to replace that marriage with a similar one with a same sex partner. 

This subplot is dull as toast in the film, I'm sorry to say, but in this production, Rannells's sparkle moves it front and center.  The sequence in which these two mismatched lovers declare their commitment to each other is, for me, the highlight of the show's second half.
A word should be said about Charlie Carver as Cowboy, who appears to be making his professional stage debut in this production. I remember this kid from Desperate Housewives, and apparently he's maintained a lively career in TV/film (it has helped that he has an identical twin, they have often worked together). 

Charlie Carver came out publicly several years ago, and has an interesting story. His parents divorced when he was quite young, and he only found out later that the split was due to his father's homosexuality. His own coming out must have been fraught with extra baggage.
Carver's role of the hustler is pretty one-note, though you can feel the audience turn against Michael when he makes snide comments about this poor kid's lack of intelligence. But Carver's final moments onstage are pretty poignant. As they are leaving, Harold asks his hooker how he is in bed. "I try to be a little affectionate," he replies. "It helps me feel less like a whore." 

The Boys in the Band is going to carry its legacy as a groundbreaking play despite the debate regarding its central theme. This Broadway production is a worthy revival of this problematic piece.  I can't help but think about those actors in the original production, back in 1968. We now know that five of them were gay, all of whom died during the Aids epidemic.  The original director and producer were also taken. 
Ironically, Robert La Tourneaux's performance as the hustler Cowboy was prophetic. He had turned to prostitution when he died. Leonard Frey (left) had a more successful career, capped with an Oscar nomination as Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. They both died of AIDS.
Kenneth Nelson (left) was the original (and unforgettable) Michael.  He had already created some theatrical history by appearing as The Boy in the original production of The Fantasticks.  His post-Band career was definitely affected by his association with The Boys.  He also died of Aids. Cliff Gorman (right) gave a very brave performance as the flamboyant Emory.  Gorman was straight, and went on to win the Tony playing Lenny Bruce in Lenny.
These are the last surviving members of the original production (at least, we assume so, as nobody can find the black guy). They escaped the Aids epidemic, they are both straight. Peter White (right) went on to play Linc Tyler on All My Children, off and on, for 30 years. Lawrence Luckinbill (left) maintains an active film/TV career, and married into Hollywood royalty to boot (he's husband to Lucie Arnaz). 

If you've gotten this far, you're clearly interested in this landmark play; there is a fascinating documentary, made in 2011, which  explores the various reactions to The Boys in the Band when it first arrived on the scene.  It's worth checking out, if only to hear how the play affected some younger playwrights such as Tony Kushner while it infuriated some of Crowley's contemporaries, such as Edward Albee.  Here's the trailer for that documentary: