Sunday, July 15, 2018

Boys in the Band: Still Relevant After All These Years

(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mart Crowley’s 1968 landmark play about gay men in New York does not feel like a 50 year-old play. While the film (from 1970) version is camp and heavy-handed, this production is anything but. It is a sleek and clear revival by director Joe Mantello. Addressing depression, anxiety, bisexuality, polyamory, self-hatred, struggling self-acceptance and love, this play reflects past and present all at once. Particularly when you add in the celebrity faces in the cast. Their presence drives a confrontation and reframing of the material for 2018.

Jim Parsons leads the ensemble as Michael, the harried host who’s trying to juggle a birthday party for friend and frenemy Harold (Zachary Quinto) with a panoply of queer friends when he gets an unexpected visit from his uptight, married college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison) who Michael remains in the closet to. Also at the party are Michael’s depressed friend Donald (Matt Bomer) and the free-wheeling, loose-lipped, and proud “nelly” Emory (Robin DeJesus). Emory trades quips with Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). Rounding out the party guests are Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) are a couple who are always fighting.

Because of the subject matter and these actors, I started to think about audiences and performances and the power of our gaze over time. How would certain scenes and characters here play 50 years ago? Who was the play speaking to? How much of it then was bringing a straight audience into a gay cultural space (albeit an Albee-inspired dramatized one)? How much of it was a refuge for those who could not speak for themselves?

Our gay cultural literacy and prevalence of homophobia is dramatically different a half-century on. I’m not saying homophobia has disappeared, but New York theater audiences showing up for this play now vs 1968 will contain a very different mix of attitudes from the get-go. I suspect the homophobic, terrified, and likely self-hating Alan represented a more prevalent audience attitude when it premiered--espousing gay men should keep their shameful behavior hidden.

The fact that several high-profile names are involved in this revival should not be underplayed. This ensemble of openly gay actors would have been unthinkable with the original production. Now these are out-actors with passionate fans (gay and straight) and audiences are showing up for them more than the material.

Yet, in some ways, it was here adulation of celebrity undid some of my experience of it. Large-scale Broadway productions with fan-driven audiences are not always listening to the “play.” They are living for their idols instead. We’ve all been there and I’m not policing those reactions. But when this happens I struggle because it makes the audience reaction around me seem unreliable. The laughs are out of kilter to the material. The nudity becomes performative beyond character. With Boys, the play takes a dark turn and it was hard to appreciate how the production was approaching that when the play just kept getting blurred with raucous laughs.

There was nothing in the production or performances that leaned into these laughs (as far as I could tell) but it does seem to be a more frequent cost of doing business on Broadway. Plays on Broadway would not exist but for celebrities in the cast and I understand that reality but its distracting nonetheless.

But beyond the outsized audience reaction, I found many things to celebrate in this production in a largely strong ensemble (only Quinto seemed strangely affected with a performance that felt more throwback than the rest).

I was struck by Alan left on his own upstairs from the party for one scene. In one breath he speaks of his revulsion for this behavior, but when he’s not performing heterosexuality and moral condemnation, we see he physically yearns to be part of the community of men downstairs. Without saying anything, with the way he stands, he shows a magnetic lean towards the voices and their world. There’s an unsaid complexity to Alan’s situation that Mantello teases out nicely with these choices and deepening the text.

But when Alan is in the room with the rest of the characters, he creates a tension through his oppressive “straight” gaze. Suddenly, everyone is meant to behave differently to conform to a heteronormative expectation that he insists upon (representing the domineering culture-at-large). There is resistance to this, primarily from Emory who refuses to butch-up for Alan. The power that Alan has to dictate to others in the space becomes an interesting and troubling touchstone. This remains a relevant question of when straight audiences cast their gaze upon queer work.

Similarly, the play addresses the white gaze operating in the birthday party that Emory and Bernard experience. Mantello highlights this in this production by casting a man of color in the role of Emory (which was originally played by white actor Cliff Gorman). Emory and Bernard insult each other and Emory tosses off racially insensitive remarks to Bernard all evening. Bernard blows up at Michael for doing the same. But Bernard makes a pointed distinction. He notes that he and Emory can do this to each other but Michael does not get to. Bernard explains he lets Emory do this because “We both got the short end of the stick- I got a hell of a lot more than he did and he knows it.” So in this room of men thinking they are operating in a “safe” space of their peers to live openly and be themselves, Bernard points out the inequities that remain within this cadre of gay men.

Of all the aspects of the play, it was how shame becomes a character in Michael’s apartment--sometimes visible and sometimes quietly tucked away--that remained the most interesting element to me. The audience need not bring judgment into the room because it’s already living there. It spills out in conversations about needing to get drunk to go cruising or have sex. Michael’s Catholicism surely conjures it for him. Simply kowtowing to Alan’s presence reflects this too.

While gay men of the 1960’s may have had a tremendous amount of culturally created shame shoved upon them with which they had to negotiate, it’s not as if there are not still cultural forces at work meant to marginalize, police behavior, or condemn gay men still today.

While there have been gains in legalizing gay marriage it is still legal to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation and gender identity in many states. Discrimination impacts psychological well-being, physical well-being, and work and education environments. Many people are still not “out” openly at their jobs because of the potential for discrimination. Shame has not gone away, it’s just gotten more subtle. Even within the gay community, body shaming is prevalent and toxic masculinity is doing damage. The nasty behavior among these friends fits right in.

While slight cuts have been made to the original text (toning down some but not all of the intentional racism, eliminating some exposition, changing some dated references), the play brings such nuance to the perennial struggle to maintain loving and accepting relationships--with friends, partners, and most especially with ourselves.

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