Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Boys in the Band

Con-con’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND fun, but lacks needed consistent realism

Mart Crowley’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND, now on stage at convergence-continuum, holds a unique and important place in theatrical history. It was the first professional hit play to examine life for homosexuals before the Gay Revolution. It played over 1000 performances off-Broadway, an unheard of success for a show that appealed to a niche audience.

To truly get in touch with the script’s intent, it is necessary to understand the era from which it comes. It’s 1968, a time when intimacy between same sex people was illegal. Where gays and lesbians had no legal rights regarding jobs or housing, and gay hate ran rampant. It’s a year before the Stonewall riots the event that ushered in a drive for gay and lesbian human rights. A revolution that has brought about legal changes, the elimination of restrictions against homosexuals in the military, achieved gay marriage or civil unions in many states, and created a general lessening of negative attitudes towards those attracted to members of the same sex.

A group of eight gay men are assembled for a birthday party in a New York apartment. There’s Michael, the party’s host, an alcoholic who turns to excessive buying and religion to try and hide himself from himself, and Donald, his weekend guest, who escapes to the Hampton’s to spend his time constantly reading and going to his therapist to fill a psychological void. There’s the flamboyant Emery, who uses sarcasm and outrageous humor to deflect his true feelings. Another attendee is Larry, an artist who finds satisfaction in multiple lovers, much to the angst of his boyfriend, Hank, who has left his wife to be with Larry and wants relational fidelity. Bernard is a black man who plays the “yasa boss “roll of allowing others to taunt him for not only his blackness, but his everlasting love for the Caucasian son of his mother’s employer; and the birthday boy Harold, who describes himself as “a pock-marked Jew fairy.”

As the play evolves, one wonders how and why this group are friends. They appear to not like each other, and, in fact, spew dislike. But, there is a bond, a bond of desperateness. These are all men who cling to each other because of their need for reassurance, even if it’s negative, in order to deal with their self-doubts and self-hatred.

Con-con’s production, under the direction of Tyson Douglas Rand, is inconsistent. This is a drama that requires fidelity and realism. Though filled with laughs, it seriously focuses on these men and their angst filled lives.

Clyde Simon steals the show as the flamboyant Emory who can hardly keep his wrists from going limp, hips from swaying, hands from flailing, and voice from screeching. Zac Hudak is natural and believable as the introspective Donald. Dan Kilbane, as Hank, the man who left his family for a new life, is real, both properly pathetic and vulnerable.

Jonathan Wilhelm has all the right snarky moves and right biting vocal sounds as the self-loathing Harold. Though he does a nice job of acting as the air-headed Cowboy, a hustler who has been purchased for the evening as a gift for Harold, Benjamin Gregg is missing the physical brawn and beauty that is a requirement for the role. Bobby Williams creates a credible Bernard.

Neither James Jarrell, as Alan, Michael’s former college roommate who accidentally walks in on the goings on, nor Scott Zolkowski, as Hank’s promiscuous lover, develops a consistent persona. Both speak words, not meanings.

A major cause of the show’s lack of true believability is Curt Arnold (Michael) not having control of his lines. It’s a minor problem in the first act, but his stumbles, repeats, and breaking character, takes the wind out of the highly emotional second act as he fails to realistically lose control as he falls deeper and deeper into drunkenness. His line flubs effect the interactions of all on stage and throw roadblocks to the realism.

The Liminus has a postage stamp stage that makes all the action up close and personal. Actors can literally touch and speak to the audience, which they often do. It supplies a greater cry for realism than if this were a performance with some distance of separation.

The costumes leave much to be desired. Many are not era correct, jackets don’t fit, supposedly expensive sweaters have holes in the sleeves.

Capsule Judgement: THE BOYS IN THE BAND is an important play filled with images of being homosexual in the U.S. before the gay revolution. The production is fun, but to be totally successful it needed to be consistently realistic. It’s okay, rather than being great!

Side note: With the sold performances that THE BOYS IN THE BAND is getting, artistic director Clyde Simon should consider doing at least one gay-themed show a season. No venue in the area makes an effort to satisfy the interests of this large niche audience. Numerous proven scripts are available or, if Simon wants to do originals, he can turn to Chicago’s Great Gay Play Contest for material.