Zeitgeist Revisits Bad old Days with Tragicomic ‘Boys In the Band’ (5 Stars)

‘Boys In the Band’ – Written by Mart Crowley; Directed by David J. Miller. Scenic Design: David Miller; Lighting Design: Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design: J. Jubelic; Costume Design: Tyler Kinney. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Black Box at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston through October 3rd.

Worst. Birthday Party. Ever.

But while it’s an excruciatingly uncomfortable evening for the party’s guests in “Boys In the Band”, David Miller and his Zeitgeist Stage Company bring Boston theatergoers a much-appreciated gift in the form of a powerful drama that doubles as a painful reminder of the not so distant past. ‘Boys in the Band’ first opened Off-Broadway in 1968, so it’s a pre-Gay Marriage, pre-Pride parade, pre-AIDS epidemic, and even pre-Stonewall (the movie version of which was coincidentally released last week and deemed “offensively bad” by the majority of critics) groundbreaking work that must have stunned audiences – gay and straight – in its day. The fact that the play is still so impactful today is both a testament to the brilliance of the writing and evidence that we still have a ways to go as a society in terms of acceptance.

The story opens in the Manhattan apartment of Michael, who is preparing to throw a birthday party for his quasi-friend Harold, a self-described “45-year old, pockmarked Jew fairy”, and a half-dozen of their friends. He is soon joined by his current lover Donald, and while waiting for the other guests to arrive, the pair discuss how their upbringing impacted their lives in psychoanalytic terms. “Failure is the only thing with which I feel at home,” says a depressed Donald, “because it’s what I was taught at home.”

And when Michael shares his backstory, one supposes that the playwright was using personality theories from 50 years ago (homosexuality was listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973), as his childhood sounds like a 1960’s recipe for raising a gay boy – i.e., a mother who wished he had been a girl, withheld him from playing sports, a compliant father and multiple trips to the beauty parlor with Mom… everything but being forced to play with Barbie dolls instead of G.I. Joes. Its stuff that people would laugh at today, but probably made for a plausible explanation in 1968.

What’s equally revealing is when Michael describes what made him decide to stop drinking, as he gives a synopsis of his boozing behavior that would have had any drug and alcohol counselor shipping him off to rehab for 30 days. We later get to see that his self-assessment was no exaggeration. But before the party begins, Michael receives a call from his old college roommate – the married and presumably straight Alan – who is in tears and needs to speak with him immediately. Michael reasons he can come over and be gone before the party begins and his more flamboyant friends show up, but that plan goes fatefully awry.

The dialogue begins with amusing, Oscar Wilde-esque quips from the characters (“There’s one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don’t have to look your best,” says Michael) but once the booze starts flowing, the witty repartee becomes more barbed, and the insults begin to cut deeper and deeper. Michael begins with an easy target, the handsome but dim-witted male prostitute (“Cowboy” played with convincing innocence by Richard Wingert) hired as a birthday present for Harold, but luckily for him the hate-filled invectives soar way over his head. But Michael soon becomes an acid-tongued cauldron of self-loathing, unleashing a merciless attack on the other guests with a laser-like focus on their points of vulnerability. They begin to return the abuse in kind before Michael goads them into playing the humiliating “Truth Game”, and as they play, we see what it must have been like to have spent your entire life being thought of as a freak for the crime of being attracted to the “wrong” sex.
To keep this play in its proper perspective, one needs to be cognizant of when it took place, and there are plenty of reminders that this is 1968 and not 2015, such as references to the vice squad arresting gay men in bath houses. And the expression on the face of Alan (the marvelous Brooks Reeves) could not have been more horror-filled than if he had stumbled into a den of cannibals feasting on flesh when he re-enters the room and it’s crystal clear that the men are homosexuals. It also sets up a truly heart-wrenching scene where, trancelike, the highly effeminate Emory (Mikey DiLoreto) recounts a painful story of a crush he had on an older boy when he was in high school and how he became a laughingstock when the other kids found out.
This is a great ensemble piece, with multiple outstanding performances, and David Miller gets the most out of a talented cast. As Michael, Victor Shopov maintains his streak of playing reprehensible characters, and he does so brilliantly. Watching his transformation from witty charmer to sociopathic bully is truly disturbing. Ryan Landry gives a restrained performance as Harold, barely keeping the lid on his own self-loathing, but responding to Michael’s heinous behavior with a least a modicum of dignity.
This is a really fine piece of work by Zeitgeist, and an important historical piece. Don’t miss it. For more info, go to: http://www.zeitgeiststage.com/Zeitgeist%202014/current_season.html