For a long time, Jack Cummings and his Transport Group have been known for innovative, award-winning revivals. The tradition continues with the current revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.
The controversial social drama/gay comedy takes place in a NY UES apartment where Michael, an alcoholic on the wagon who lives way above his means, and friend Donald ready to host a birthday party for long-time friend Harold, who has issues with his looks and who seems to know exactly how to push Michael’s buttons. They are joined by seven friends: Bernard, an African-American who allows himself to be denigrated by best bud, the ultra flamboyant Emory, who’s always on; bi-sexual Hank and promiscuous Larry, who disagree on relationship monogamy; and Cowboy, a prostitute who has been hired as Harold’s present. The unexpected arrival of Michael’s college chum Alan, as the "boys" do a Fire Island line dance, upsets the apple cart and turns the party topsy turvy.
Cummings’ concept of staging the play in a non-traditional site with 99 seats placed throughout Sanda Goldmark’s evocative set is an idea that’s paid off handsomely. The staging intimately involves audiences as spectators very close by the sidelines and, often, right in the middle of the action. This intimacy gives the play even more blistering bite.
Beginning in 1961, Neil Simon gradually built a rep as king of the comic one-liners. He had a brilliant skill of being able to craft these jolts that elicited great audience laughter into a coherent whole. You might say that Crowley, some seven years later, could have easily inherited the crown. But add this to Crowley’s resume: he influenced dozens of writers and playwrights that followed.
Amazingly, some 42 years later, 99 99/100% of his groundbreaking BITB holds up extraordinarily well not only as absorbing storytelling [much of it very autobiographical] but also as black comedy with almost two hours of slung one-liners that still elict mighty laughter. Perhaps one reason is that many of Crowley’s zingers have found a home in hip vernacular – not only gay, but also straight.
The revival is sharply focused by Cummings’ direction in a work that doesn’t seem the least bit dated [though younger audiences might not understand a time when some had two phone lines or, when dialing Information, getting a human voice who miraculously and immediately has the number you’re looking for at her fingertips. Often, and very powerfully, the director’s deft hand is even felt in moments of silence when the "boys" are caught by surprise or standing, heads bowed.
The staging, as effective as it is overall, can be a disadvantage at times to those not seated close to a particular sequence – particularly true of those moments in Michael’s bedroom, an elevated area at the far end of the loft space.
The Boys in the Band, with its black comic overtones that mask bitchiness, hostility, revenge, and tones of self-hatred, is a play not only dependent on excellent writing but also on perfect casting.
The original cast of the play is so indelibly set in many people’s minds because of the work’s inital long run and the fact that the film adaptation, though immensely opened up in early moments, starred – thanks to Crowley’s insistence – the original cast. It’s hard to forget those portrayals.
However, to a great extent, Cummings’ cast is incredibly well chosen. Jonathan Hammond, in the pivotal role of Michael, covers all the camp and minefield of emotional bases excellently except in a prolonged breakdown that’s just a little too hysterical and prolonged for its own good. He receives steady and able support especially from Graham Rowat as Hank, Nick Westrate as Donald, Kevyn Morrow as Bernard, and, as the unexpected guest, Kevin Isola as Alan.
It’s never fair to make comparisons with actors in an original cast, but the performances of Clff Gorman as Emory and Leonard Frey as Harold are still so memorable. Their characters are so vital to making the play work that, respectively, John Wellmann and Jon Levenson simply miss the boat. But those are big shoes to fill.
In a clever touch, which especially adds nuance to the fadeout, Dane Laffrey has lit the playing area with assorted lamps and a light fixture.
By Ellis Nassour
The Boys in the Band, Transport Group, 37. West 26th Street, Penthouse, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Set to run through March 28 :