Stages

Review: Windy City Playhouse’s The Boys in the Band Has Aged Well and Warmly

Tsopnang, Marquez, Lee and Evans. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Boys in the Band was revolutionary when it was first performed off Broadway in April 1968, in its portrayal of the lives and loves of gay men. The producers had difficulty finding actors who were willing to play gay characters, fearing their careers would be ended. For context, remember that “homosexual activity” was a crime in 49 states at that time. Illinois was the first state to change that, passing a law that decriminalized “consensual sodomy” in 1962, almost a decade before any other state.

The 2018 Broadway production of The Boys in the Band celebrated the 50th anniversary of the play, as well as the societal changes that have affected the lives of the LGBTQ community. Written by Mart Crowley and beautifully directed by Carl Menninger, The Boys in the Band is now being staged in an entertaining and moving  “immersive” production by Windy City Playhouse. The Boys in the Band is a delightful party, laced with cheeky repartee that builds to an emotional ending.

The play is set in a gorgeous loft apartment in midtown Manhattan. Swathed and draped in crimson and furnished in mid-century modern, the set designed by William Boles should win a Jeff on its own. The production is not quite as immersive as Southern Gothic was. In that WCP production, the set was several rooms in a house where party guests and viewers wandered and mingled from room to room. Here, audience members sit on comfortable benches around the perimeter and in the “conversation pit” while the actors perform throughout the apartment, which includes a loft bedroom. Servers occasionally pass cocktails and a vegan snack to viewers.

The loft is the home of Michael (Jackson Evans) who’s having a 32nd birthday party tonight for Harold, who always arrives late. Arriving first is Michael’s ex, Donald (Jordan Dell Harris). They still have a close relationship and Donald is clearly Michael’s confidant.

The cast of The Boys in the Band. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

More guests arrive, drinks are poured, conversation is convivial and often snarky. Larry (James Lee) and Hank (Ryan Reilly) come in with Emory (William Marquez), whose boyfriend Bernard (Denzel Tsopnang) arrives a little later. Hank and Bernard are in suits but most of the guests are dressed casually. Emory dresses with flair (accessorized with a scarf).

The party includes plenty of music and an impromptu dance number by Bernard, Emory, Larry and Michael. There’s a fight to liven things up when Alan (Christian Edwin Cook) Michael’s college roommate, and ostensibly straight, arrives sort of uninvited and takes offense at Emory’s style and behavior. Cowboy (Kyle Patrick), appears, a present for Harold. And finally, Harold (Sam Bell-Gurwitz) does arrive. Gifts are opened, dinner is served and the drinks keep coming.

The conversation becomes more personal and intense as the evening progresses. Michael introduces a telephone game in which each person has to call the person he loves the most with points scored for various results. The men take this seriously and the results are poignant and revealing; some relationships fray as a result.

Harold ends the evening with a devastating speech to Michael that begins, “You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual, and you don’t want to be. But there is nothing you can do to change it….”

Near the beginning of the play, Michael introduces himself by saying, “What you see before you is a 30-year-old infant.” And near the end, he says, “You show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

Michael’s loft apartment. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

At the end, Michael leaves to go to church. That may seem odd, but he’s going to the midnight mass at St. Malachy’s, long known as The Actors’ Chapel. I’ve walked by St. Malachy’s many times. (It’s on 49th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue in the theater district.) I’ve been tempted to go in, despite my aversion to organized religion. Next time I will.

The Boys in the Band is warm, funny, irreverent and still very relevant. It was written in and for 1968, however, and the language reflects that. The word gay is rarely used; the men use the terms fairy, pansy and homosexual.

Menninger’s strong cast is led by Evans’ nuanced performance as Michael, a man troubled by his fondness for alcohol and his sexuality. Dell Harris and Marquez also turn in strong performances as Donald and Emory. William Boles’ spectacular set design is lighted by Erik S. Berry with props design and set dressing by Mealah Heidenreich. Sound design is by Sarah D. Espinoza and costumes by Uriel Gomez.

The Boys in the Band was adapted as a film in 1970, directed by William Friedkin. We can look forward to a 2020 film version on Netflix, starring the main actors from the 2018 Broadway production: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells. Director and adapter is Joe Mantello, who directed the Broadway version.

The Boys in the Band continues at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., through April 19. Tickets are $75-$95 (including cocktails and snacks during the show) for performances Wednesday-Sunday; there are two shows on weekend days. Running time is 110 minutes with no intermission.

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An afterword. I wondered how gay men who would have been the age to be guests at that party would feel about the play today. I asked a friend who saw the play how it affected him and he sent me this interesting and heartfelt response.

“It seems to me that Boys in the Band is a play for everyone; younger or older, gay or straight.  Older gay gentlemen will remember the days when house parties were a primary social outlet.  Younger gay dudes may find the historical perspective interesting.  Straight folks will find that issues such as racism and ageism are handled forthrightly albeit through a rainbow lens.  Some people may find the play prompts difficult memories and regretful feelings.  But isn’t one of theater’s functions to make us think about how we’ve lived our lives, through the eyes and experiences of others?  And perhaps to do better in the future.  Boys in the Band seems intended to showcase the sad and sorrowful lives of so many gay people in the 1960s and 1970s; an intention admirably fulfilled.  A thoughtful audience member should also be reminded of the steadily improving lot of gay people (not all, but many) and consider how they might contribute to that upward trajectory.”

2 replies »

  1. As a straight man cast as understudy to Kenneth Nelson’s Michael in the original New York production, I later performed the role of Michael in the Los Angeles & Las Vegas road productions. The most enduring question about the play has been the reaction of the straight society to The Boys’ depiction of gay life. Do straight people really get what the play is about? The play is not about gay people. The play is about personal self -destruction.
    The Windy City production goes to lengths to embrace the audience in ways the original production could not possibly do. Windy City embraces the audience and welcomes it into Michael’s party. Windy City assumes an audience is more knowing of gay culture. In the original production, straight audiences literally assaulted the production, piercing the theater’s traditional 4th wall.
    Playwright Edward Albee refused to invest in the original production of Boys. Albee feared any success of Boys would impinge upon the success of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Albee’s play addressed self-destruction among straight people.
    As for the Boys destroying acting careers, that’s a myth. Most of the original cast were working, successful actors when they assumed the roles. I went from Bridgeport in Chicago to New York with five years of theater experience behind me. I was thrilled to audition and win the lead role of Michael. One day, while rehearsing, I ran into Dustin Hoffman in the lobby. He was fresh off his success in Midnight Cowboy and was hoping he could get cast in The Boys in the Band.

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