BWW Reviews: Country Playhouse's THE BOYS IN THE BAND - Surprisingly Relevant, Great Retro Show
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by David Clarke
As the nation faces an new civil rights battle, homosexuality is a topic that many have opinions about. Country Playhouse is taking audiences back to an era before the Stonewall Riots and before the AIDS epidemic, showcasing the struggles that afflicted homosexuals in the 1960s. As 2013 opens, Country Playhouse is producing Mart Crowley's seminal and classic 1968 play THE BOYS IN THE BAND. The play is set in an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, and in a very WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRIGINA WOOLF style, reminds or introduces audiences to a time when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders included homosexuality in addition to the self-loathing and lack of self-confidence experienced among the homosexual community in that period.
The plot revolves around Michael throwing a birthday party for his "friend," really frenemy, Harold. He has gathered Harold's closest friends to celebrate the event, but Michael's heterosexual, college roommate Alan hurriedly comes to New York, claiming that he has something he must tell Michael. Before long, Alan is at Michael's apartment and is disgusted by the group of men assembled there, especially the effeminate Emory. As drinks are swilled and furiously swallowed, Michael devises a cruel game, all in the hopes of getting Alan to openly out himself, that causes the men to expose their secret loves and backgrounds one by one.
Stuart Purdy's direction of the cast showcases his understanding of the dynamic script, which I had never seen produced before. He mentions in his director's note that he purposely cast the play with an older crowd "to emphasize the survival quotient ? everybody has stayed too long at the fair. But after doing bitter battle, our knights shake off the party dust and promise to call the next day." With no previous incarnations or notions to compare it to, I found this idea to work in the context of the story created by Mart Crowley. It expertly illuminates the notion that these men have dealt with keeping their identities secret and repressed for such a long period in their lives that it has had devastating affects on their psyches, allowing them to slip into self-deprecation and abuse of their closest friends without hesitation. Thus, his direction really exposes the inherent darkness of the script, which still feels surprisingly relevant today. The news constantly reports about homosexual teens bullied into committing suicide, which, in this play, could sincerely be a bleak future for at least one of these characters. No one has ever said being gay was easy, and Mart Crowley's work under Stuart Purdy's direction makes that abundantly clear.
Even though this is Michael and Allan's story, for me the star of the show was Jay Menchaca's flamboyant Emory. I found Jay Menchaca's Emory to be instantly likeable and enjoyable, effortlessly earning laughs as he flits to and fro. When Alan loses it and attacks Emory, my heart skipped a beat because I was concerned about the character. Whether it is the writing or the portrayal, the constant self-loathing and hatred for their position in life caused me to not emotionally connect with the other characters on stage, but that simply was not the case for Jay Mechaca's Emory. Likewise, I was completely enraptured by Emory's monologue about who he was calling in Michael's cruel game.
Playing Michael, Travis Springfield reminded me a lot of Matthew Broderick's recent stage work. The character, despite his ongoing self-deprecation, gives off this self-knowing vibe of superiority. Many, if not all of the lines, are delivered as sardonic quips or sarcastic punch lines. Travis Springfield's Michael is played so that the hate he has for himself is transferred onto those he associates with, so he, like George and Martha in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRIGINA WOOLF, seems to delight in the psychological torment of his friends.
As Donald, Adam Richardson creates a character that seems to get lost in the mix of the action. As the partner to Travis Springfield's Michael, the play's action allows him to fall by the wayside. In this production, it is not clear if the two men are actually affectionate. They discuss shared moments of intimacy, but neither seems devoutly in love with the other; thus, they seem to be biding their time together. After the party is over, Adam Richardson's Donald retreats to his books. He shares a brief moment with Michael that indicates that he'll be there next week as well. But there is no tangibly romantic or affectionate connection between the two, leaving me to wonder why Donald and Michael are even together to begin with.
Jerrod Tettey plays Bernard, who is the first victim of Michael's phone game. In calling his boyhood crush, he bares his soul for the audience in a monologue that is as weighty and meaty as an operatic aria. Until this moment, and in the moments following, Bernard is merely a background character. Despite this, Jerrod Tettey breathes tangible life into the character, which by today's standards is a composite stereotype of a gay man who never escaped the bond and attraction he felt for a peer.
Tad Howington plays straight-acting Hank. This character offers glimpses into the dynamic relationships between gay men and straight men with a twist of dramatic irony, as the audience knows that Hank is gay long before Alan does. Like Bernard, Hank is a character that audiences are very familiar with-the gay divorcee and father. Unfortunately, as Tad Howington's Hank engages in a battle over monogamy with his partner Larry, his character's archetype reads as stilted. It simply does not carry the same dynamics that Jerrod Tettey's Bernard does.
The über-promiscuous Larry is adroitly played by Bob Galley. Complete with a half-buttoned shirt and golden necklace, Bob Galley's characterization of the bath house all star created a seedy, sleazy character-a gay Leisure Suit Larry, if you will. In light of this though, the character and his partner (Tad Howington's Hank) get to discuss promiscuousness and the homosexual identity, which many still use in arguments against the marriage of homosexual couples. Yet, Larry, who is most-likely helping the spread of Hepatitis among the gay community in NYC and would be a prime suspect in the spread of HIV, is terribly unlikeable because his refusal to be monogamous is purely selfish. Being wholly unlikable simply allows Bob Galley to bring out the scummy nature of this character.
As the straight Alan, Louis Crespo is forceful and powerful in his ability to harbor animosity. He instantly conveys his contempt and disgust for Michael's lifestyle and friends. The audience sees him build to the climatic fight that ends the first act. In the second act, the audience then sees him retreat into himself to avoid the discomfiting situation that Michael has forced him to become enmeshed in. Louis Crespo's characterization significantly displays Alan's bold stand against Michael when choosing to participate in the devious phone game.
Playing Harold, L. RoBert Westeen presents the audience with a character that is caught up on the superficiality of outward appearances. His sole concern is about his tarnished looks. The character is emotionally stunted by his own pretensions and reads as emotionally stagnant to his friends and the audience.
Jake Bevill's Cowboy is expertly played as the dumb piece of meat hired to be Harold's boy toy for the evening. As a prostitute he stays out of the infighting of the group, doing only what he has been paid for.
Set design and construction of the show is simply astounding, especially considering that it was done on a slim budget at a community theatre. The set emanates a professional vibe. It utilizes space magnificently and reads posh 60s apartment with ease. There is the cool and sublime dual tone green striped walls for the living room and the bold, cool blue for Michael's bedroom. Perhaps the best decoration of the set comes from the Andy Warhol Pop art inspired painting of Travis Springfield as Michael. Likewise, John Kaiser's paint job for the hard wood floors looks great on the stage as well. Even with their standing as a community theatre, this is one of the best sets I have seen built for a Houston stage since I began reviewing for BroadwayWorld last May.
Sound Design, Light Design, and Costume Design are all wonderfully effective and each achieves the goal it has in mind without any complications.
The Country Playhouse's production of Mart Crowley's THE BOYS IN THE BAND is a great, retrospective look into an era not far from our own. The play discusses relevant and topical issues that encourage audiences to engage in conversations of their own, even in 2013. Some of the characters read as stereotyped and even dated, and that is simply because the play itself, as a groundbreaking piece, opened the door for depictions of homosexual men in media. Despite being dated, the play still stands on its own and should be seen and discussed. I don't recommend that you miss an opportunity to take a trip back in time to see a revolutionary play that accurately shows just how far we've come while highlighting how far we still need to go as a society.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND runs on Country Playhouse's Cerwinske Stage through January 26, 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit http://countryplayhouse.org/or call (713) 467-4497.
All photos by David Yannone, White Moth Productions, courtesy of Country Playhouse.