Back in 1968, the societal repression of gays was in full bloom, a fact undergirding The Boys in the Band, the Mart Crowley cult-fave play that became a beloved (and at times lamented) film in the gay community. Now directed by Tyson Douglas Rand at Convergence-Continuum, this production has many of the über-bitchy elements in place, but lacks the performance assurance and ensemble timing that could make it truly memorable.
At his New York apartment, Michael is hosting a birthday party for Harold, inviting five gay buddies of various ages to share in the festivities. As they arrive, amid squeals of laughter and playful put-downs, snatches of their back stories are revealed.
The first arrival is Donald (a centered and largely sympathetic Zac Hudak), who is half-heartedly battling his homosexual urges. Emory (a funny and affecting Clyde Simon) is the ultimate fey cliché: a lisping, limp-wristed man who fends off his emotions with deftly placed bon mots. He is pals with Bernard (Bobby Williams), an African American who still carries a torch for a young white man in the family where his mother worked as a maid.
Rounding out the invitees is a fragile couple: the hypersexual and constantly trolling Larry (a smooth Scott Zolkowski) and his partner Hank (Dan Kilbane, in diamond-hard, buzz-cut ROTC mode), who is married and easily passes for straight.
Though there is too much forced introspection early on, playwright Crowley turns comic phrases with precision. Michael disses gay bars by describing them as "everyone just standing around, like one long intermission." And he rags on his gay psychoanalyst: "He shrinks my head and then combs me out."
But the easy banter is upset when Alan (James E. Jarrell), Michael's supposedly straight friend, arrives to vent about an urgent issue that, um, is probably not too hard to guess in the context of this play. After a hilarious interlude when the boys try to act butch to preserve Michael's tenuous straight cover in front of Alan, birthday-boy Harold arrives.
The self-described "pock-marked Jew fairy" wastes no time regretting his inability to lure young men, even though he's cheered somewhat by Michael's birthday gift: a cute and adorably dense urban "cowboy" (Benjamin Gregg).
The frivolity takes a mean twist when Michael instigates a party game in which everyone is supposed to call the one man he always secretly loved. This is also where the production starts slipping gears because, in the pivotal role of Michael, Curt Arnold never establishes a clean through-line.
Arnold's Michael lacks an edgy subtext in the early going, so his eventual spiteful turns on Harold (and everyone else) seem weirdly out of place. Plus, Arnold is beset by memory problems, often stopping a line and backing up to correct himself. This is a cardinal sin, since actors, like sharks, must always move relentlessly forward. Otherwise, they reveal the inherent artificiality of their enterprise.
As Harold, Jonathan Wilhelm conveys the brittle sense of superiority that can only result from a massive inferiority complex. But Wilhelm is fossilized to a fault, rarely allowing his Harold to revel quietly in his role as the biggest, baddest tarantula in this gay spider nest.
Director Rand deftly directs the traffic on Con-Con's small stage, but he over-blocks some scenes. When Emory gives a long monologue, he paces back and forth like a caged (albeit effete) lion, undercutting the moment. And many beats in the second act are so blurry, it's hard to suss out what's really happening.
Still, this play spews attitude like few others. And even with the glitches, one feels the hurt when Alan buries his mysterious secret under a wave of self-loathing, as the men around him implode in a variety of tragic and bitterly amusing ways.
The Boys in the Band
Through October 29, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074
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