KPBS AIRDATE: August 2001
You’ve come a long way, Baby. — sort of. In the 33 years since Mart Crowley wrote “The Boys in the Band,” some things have changed, some haven’t. In 1968, when the play is set, homosexuality was against the law, the Vice Squad routinely stormed gay bars, private homes could be forcibly entered, and the Stonewall riots, which initiated the gay rights movement, were still a year off. The lifestyle of the eight gay men in the piece was shocking to a mainstream audience, and their language was downright scandalous.
But the often-hilarious play, and the 1970 movie made with its original cast, were a watershed event for the gay community. Yet, despite the dramatic improvements in laws and public awareness, the world is still not wholly accepting of gay people. It’s no small irony that “The Laramie Project” is running concurrently at La Jolla Playhouse, not that far from Diversionary’s terrific production of “The Boys in the Band.” If young Matthew Shepard’s Laramie, Wyoming murder was a homophobic hate-crime, then gays are still not free to relax their vigilance. And as long as they still have to defend and justify their existence, they will have to cope with issues of self-esteem and even self-loathing. Those emotions are present a-plenty in the ground-breaking “Boys in the Band,” and they’re what’s angered many a gay activist since. But the truth is, this is a vibrant, not a faded portrait of a community. Despite the ’60s allusions, each of those characters is alive and well today.
There’s the quick-witted, urbane, materialistic Michael, who’s living beyond his means — a Southerner transplanted to New York, a movie fanatic, and a mean, nasty drunk. Then there are his friends at the birthday party he’s throwing — the artist, the queen, the slut, the cynic, the divorced father, the up-tight suburbanite, the gentle black guy… and the supposed straight-man. The play’s first act is uproarious, but then things turn serious — and bitchy in Act Two. It’s all a riff on Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” where deadly games are played and artifice is stripped away, so that maybe the process of healing can begin.
Director Tim Irving and designer David Weiner have been true to the time, but not slavishly so, which allows us to realize how close to home these guys still are. Weiner makes wonderful use of Diversionary’s small space. Irving has assembled and directed an outstanding cast, headed by Michael Hummel, doing his best, most focused work ever, in a role that arcs sharply over the course of the play. David McBean and Adam Edwards do what they’ve done so well before: sharp brooding in one case and fey mincing in the other. Both are screamingly funny, as is the rest of the cast. But beyond the laughs, we get the full array of emotions and relationships, the same issues any group deals with: friendship, love, loyalty, faithfulness. Having seen so many gay plays over the years, it’s a thrill to revisit “the one that started it all,” the one that remains a powerhouse of humor and humanity.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.