By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
A birthday party becomes an emotional bloodbath over the course of 100 minutes in Mart Crowley’s seminal play “The Boys in the Band” (produced by defunkt theatre, and playing alternating weeks through June 15).
Jon Kretzu’s site-specific production gives audience members a literal ringside seat, placing them in the protagonist Michael’s living room while the play proceeds all around them.
It’s a hugely successful choice, allowing viewers to share the room’s mood, which goes from edgily jovial to cruelly dark as events progress.
Ingesting this entertaining, yet difficult, work, the audience is left wondering both why the characters — particularly the party host Michael (the very able Jeffery Arrington) and guest of honor Harold (the wonderfully droll, dangerous Matthew Kerrigan) — treat each other in such shocking ways, and why they so rarely seem shocked themselves.
The answers are not reassuring.
“The Boys in the Band” was the first successful play to address homosexuality as a topic and self-loathing is one of its key themes.
The play opens with Michael and his lover Donald (the charismatic Bjorn Anderson), catching up before the party starts. They discuss their latest findings in analysis, and generally give withering self-appraisals.
Donald, in a moment of foreshadowing, commends Michael’s recent sobriety, commenting on how dark he can be when he drinks.
One by one guests arrive, and the group becoming more self-conscious and critical as its numbers swell.
In the script’s most ingenious turn, a straight college friend of Michael’s, Alan (the excellent Jason Glick), calls, panicked, and invites himself over.
There’s a brilliant tension, as the group, led by a neurotic Michael, police themselves, impersonating the dominant straight culture for Alan’s benefit.
As they let down the ruse, the room becomes a hall of mirrors, as the characters see sides of themselves reflected in the others.
Michael incessantly attacks Cowboy (the delightful Chris Ringkamp), an attractive male prostitute one guest hires for Harold, for being empty headed.
Michael and Harold snipe at each other’s frailties, and, in the evening’s most explosive moment, Alan attacks Emory, the group’s most flamboyant member, physically, screaming that he’s a “faggot.”
Why does Alan do that? Why does he stay at the party at all? What explains his (platonic?) attraction to Hank (the subtle, beautifully understated Jake Street)?
In a perfect world, he wouldn’t have attacked Emory at all, and the other questions wouldn’t matter. It isn’t a perfect world, of course, and, almost 45 years after the play’s debut, the friction of this moment loses none of its resonance.
Crowley’s play isn’t perfect. At times, particularly when Michael commandeers the conversation, one sees the plot’s seams all too clearly. It’s still wonderfully witty and moving, however, and the choice to place the audience within the proceedings adds to its intimacy.
In the play’s second half, for instance, when Michael has hijacked the party with a horrible telephone dare game, Bernard, the play’s lone African-American character (portrayed by Arthur Franklin), has a crushing moment. The audience shares the elegant, vulnerable Franklin’s emotions up close, removing any of the staginess the scene may have fallen prey to.
Likewise, in the altercation between Alan and Emory, and a later scene between Michael and Donald, the physical danger of the play has a visceral closeness that might be lost in a traditional theater.
“The Boys in the Band” is sometimes considered problematic for the self-loathing its characters exhibit. But this criticism misses the larger point the play illustrates, namely that the world is a problematic place for people who, like the play’s characters, lack privilege, and that self- loathing and intracommunity cruelty can be byproducts of the inequality they suffer.
During a showdown between Michael and Harold, the former takes the latter to task for hoarding prescription drugs, suspecting Harold is planning to commit suicide. This isn’t a movie, he tells him, where the gay characters all die in the end.
Lines like that can change perspectives.
defunkt theatre has done an amazing job of reviving this powerful play. Pull up a chair in Michael’s living room, and prepare for quite a night.
“The Boys in the Band,” defunkt theatre through June 15.