The Boys in the Band returns for the first time in decades to Chicago | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The Boys in the Band returns for the first time in decades to Chicago

The action in Mart Crowley's landmark gay play surrounds the audience at Windy City Playhouse.

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The Boys in the Band is a groundbreaking work in American theater history. Windy City Playhouse's superb new production reveals Mart Crowley's 1968 drama also to be a durable emotional powerhouse, as potent and poignant today as ever.

Though not the first "gay play" in American theater, this off-Broadway milestone—about a group of gay men at a transformative birthday party—was the first gay "crossover" hit. For the first time, gays were the "insiders" whose world is disrupted by a (maybe) heterosexual misfit who is harassed and humiliated by the homosexual majority. It was "turnabout time," and nobody had ever seen anything like it onstage—or onscreen, when a Hollywood movie starring the entire original cast was released in 1970. After paving the way for Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy and Tony Kushner's Angels in America, The Boys in the Band finally reached Broadway in 2018; Windy City Playhouse employs the Tony Award-winning revival's trimmed-down one-act edition of what was originally a two-act script. (A film adaptation of Joe Mantello's Broadway production will run on Netflix later this year.)

Set on a Saturday night in April of '68 (Easter/Passover weekend, perhaps?), the story takes place in the New York City apartment of Michael (Jackson Evans), a 30-something southern Catholic and an alcoholic in fragile recovery, who is hosting a gathering for pot-smoking frenemy Harold (Sam Bell-Gurwitz), a self-described "32-year-old pockmarked Jew fairy" (and perhaps Michael's former lover). The invitees include bookish Long Islander Donald (Jordan Dell Harris), who visits the city on weekends to see his psychiatrist and cruise the baths, as well as promiscuous barfly Larry (James Lee) and schoolteacher Hank (Ryan Reilly), lovers whose arrangement is endangered by Hank's insistence on a monogamous relationship—like the heterosexual marriage Hank recently abandoned when he could no longer deny his homosexuality.

Also on the guest list are nelly queen Emory (William Marquez) and African American Bernard (Denzel Tsopnang), outsiders even within a predominantly white male bourgeois subculture grounded in butch/femme role-playing. In this production (as in the 2018 Broadway revival), Emory is also Latinx, which intensifies the pair's marginalized status. Joining in the "fun" is Cowboy (Kyle Patrick), a $20-a-night male prostitute whom Emory has hired to be Harold's birthday present. Possessed of what Harold describes as "unnatural natural beauty," the handsome hustler is an object of both dehumanizing lust and mean-spirited mockery for his presumed stupidity. And then there's Alan (Christian Edwin Cook), a supposedly straight preppy lawyer and Michael's former Georgetown University roommate, whose uninvited intrusion triggers an ugly—but eventually cathartic—evening of verbal (and in one case physical) violence, as the "boys" put aside their campy quips and bitchy banter to drunkenly confront their most vulnerable and painful memories, secrets, and fears.

Though recalling Edward Albee's 1962 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—another orgy of boozy emotional bloodletting—The Boys in the Band stands on its own thanks to the complex, ambiguous emotional dynamics among characters whose dense histories are occasionally explained but more often obliquely suggested. (Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, which ran on Broadway the year before Crowley's play opened, is clearly an influence.) Director Carl Menninger's intimate, immersive environmental staging illuminates the piece as a psychological mystery as well as a study of 1960s gay social dynamics. Designers William Boles (set) and Erik S. Barry (lighting) have transformed the sprawling space into the lushly colored living room/dining room/kitchen of Michael's apartment—a duplex in the tony Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan's east midtown area. Some of the audience—only 40 people per performance—sit around the edges of the action; others are seated right in the middle of it, on a sunken rectangular couch. As the cast, all excellent, move around and among the viewers, Menninger charts the characters' shifting alliances via their changing spatial relationships.

Marquez and Tsopnang are particularly gripping as Emory and Bernard, with their back-to-back monologues about long-past but never-forgotten teenage crushes on white boys who could never return—or admit to sharing—their young love. It's easy to imagine these two participating in the Stonewall Rebellion a year after this story takes place, when queers of color fought back against police harassment and the social oppression it was meant to enforce. And it's possible to imagine these characters, all of whom take tentative steps toward personal liberation over the course of the evening, standing together as allies and caregivers in the AIDS crisis destined to unfold a decade later—an epidemic that, in real life, claimed the lives of almost half of the play's original cast.  v

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