Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Perfectly Gay Soirée: In Immersive Windy City Playhouse Production, ‘The Boys in the Band’ Excels Through Specificity AND Universality -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Boys in the Band
a classic play by Mart Crowley
directed by Carl Menninger
Windy City Playhouse, Chicago
Thru April 19

In 1968, when The Boys in the Band—which incidentally isn’t a musical and has nothing to do with a band—premiered Off-Broadway, most of the United States (including New York) was covered by sodomy laws that essentially made homosexuality illegal.

The next year, the Stonewall Riots in NYC would serve as a catalyst for the gay rights movement and, ultimately, bring increased acceptance and tolerance, though society clearly still has a long way to go.

So Mart Crowley’s one-act play—whose title comes from a line in the 1954 film, A Star is Born, that has James Mason saying to Judy Garland, “You're singing for yourself and the boys in the band”—was quite groundbreaking and courageous in chronicling a birthday party attended by several gay men.

And even after a Tony-winning 50th anniversary 2018 Broadway revival starring openly gay film & TV stars like Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer seemingly made a point about progress, the play—which I saw for the first time Sunday in a splendid production at Windy City Playhouse—still feels more daring and unique than it probably should.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
I appreciate how important, representative and prideful The Boys in the Band must be—historically, presently, always—for those in the LGBTQ community.

And the terrific cast at WCP under the direction of Carl Menninger seemingly does Crowley’s trailblazing work great justice, with the immersive staging—the audience sits around the apartment where the party takes place after riding an elevator to reach it—having added considerably to my emotional embrace.

But where The Boys in the Band transcends being eye-opening and ballsy for its time—and even our time—and stands as dramatically superlative is in chronicling the experience of youngish gay men in late-‘60s Manhattan while simultaneously reflecting universal human emotions, experiences and truths...anytime, anywhere.

This was my first visit to Windy City Playhouse’s flagship venue on Irving Park Road after having seen and loved Every Brilliant Thing last October, presented in a space on Motor Row along South Michigan Ave.

That show, which I named my favorite play of 2019 and nearly my favorite solo theatrical piece of the decade, was also quite successfully staged in imaginatively immersive fashion.

Over the years, I’ve been to a few shows where the audience sits among the actors, rather than in seats facing a stage, but never as holistically or effectively as at these two WCP productions.

Every Brilliant Thing featured a single actress who regularly interacted with the audience, occasionally in acting out small scenes.

The Boys in the Band has us sitting amidst the nine actors as they move about the spacious apartment—and "stage hands" kindly bring around some food & drink—but doesn’t really have the actors engaging with the audience (at least at the performance I attended).

I thought it might be fun if we were asked to get up and dance, or kibitzed with in some ad hoc way, though narratively it wouldn’t really make sense for a party attended rather privately by gay men to also include, say, Japanese grandmothers or anyone else comprising the play’s ideally diverse audiences.

So although the immersive conceit is wonderful, it only stretches so far.

But, as far as one’s imagination wants to wrap, we are in the Upper East Side apartment of Michael (played by Jackson Evans, who shows terrific versatility after also excelling in musicals like Avenue Q, Ride the Cyclone and Matilda).

He’s hosting a birthday party for Harold (Sam Bell-Gurwitz), but first to arrive is Donald, who I believe is Michael’s ex-boyfriend. He’s played by Jordan Dell Harris, who I’ve also seen do nice work in some local musicals.

Guests also include Emory (William Marquez), Hank (Ryan Reilly), Larry (James Lee), Bernard (Denzel Tsopnang), Alan (Christian Edwin Cook) and Cowboy (Kyle Patrick), though a couple of them weren’t directly invited.

It’s to the credit of Crowley’s script, whatever alterations may have been made to modernize it a bit, all of the actors and director Menninger that each of the characters is quite distinctive and well-defined.

You should get to know these men on your own, but one is quite flamboyant, another a newly divorced father, several loquacious and/or acerbic, a few self-loathing, one far from monogamous even within a relationship and one seemingly closeted.

All—understandably given that, when the play was written, they would egregiously be considered criminals—have some struggles of self.

As at parties everywhere, the friends eat, drink, chat, banter, bicker, tease, curse, cajole, share, laugh, play music, commiserate and have cake.

But driving forward a particularly poignant part of the narrative is a “game” in which each person is
to telephone someone they have truly loved, and—if connected—tell them.

Some of what then occurs is wrenching, even heartbreaking. And the scenarios revealed are at times devastating because of homophobia encountered, or residual apprehension, embarrassment, humiliation, etc.

Yet this is also where The Boys in the Band connects us all, because who couldn’t think of someone they would call?

Or might be afraid to?

So yes, this is an important, admirable, enlightening work of theater because it is about gay men, be they businessmen, teachers, photographers, interior decorators, artists, prostitutes, African-Americans, Catholics, New Yorkers or whatever else distinguishes them.

But it is a great play because the underlying themes—our commonalities that far outweigh our differences—pertain to everyone.

In one way or another, we are all the boys in the band.

No comments: