The way we were

The cast of The Boys in the Band at Windy City P:layhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)
The cast of The Boys in the Band at Windy City P:layhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)

 

‘The Boys in the Band’

4 stars

 

During the repressive 1960’s a gay man was forced to become very secretive about everything. Being “in the closet” was how most homosexuals survived being hassled or, quite often, brutally attacked for what was perceived as a perverted life style. A small percentage of men braved all the hostility and met their peers at the few underground gay bars and bath houses located primarily in certain large cities

Mart Crowley wrote his groundbreaking “Boys in the Band” in response to the prevalent oppressive social attitude of that time. The lives of every homosexual was threatened daily with violence and unfair laws. Gay men continually were the brunt of heterosexual jokes, degradation anger and, although claiming to not be an activist, Crowley felt the need to expose this oppressing milieu to the world through the theatre.

As one might expect, Crowley had a difficult time getting his play produced in 1968. He even met with difficulty in finding a director who would take a chance with such a controversial play, as well as finding actors willing to portray gay men onstage.

However, with the help of famed playwright, Edward Albee, he finally secured an Off-Broadway theatre that could guarantee five performances. Shocking the New York theatre world, “The Boys in the Band” became so popular it had to be moved to a larger venue, where it went on to play for two years and over 1,000 performances.

In 1970 the playwright was urged to write the screenplay for a film version that would bring his play to an even larger audience. The drama would be revived a few times over the years Off-Broadway, but it wouldn’t open on Broadway until fifty years later. The limited engagement featured an all-star cast of actors who, in the more progressive 21st century, were openly gay. It was a landmark production and it even took home the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Standing, from left) Denzel Tsopnang, William Marquez, James Lee and Jackson Evans in The Boys in the Band at Windy City Playhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Standing, from left) Denzel Tsopnang, William Marquez, James Lee and Jackson Evans in The Boys in the Band at Windy City Playhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)

Probably inspired by the success of this recent Broadway hit, as well as the overwhelming popularity of their long-running, barrier-breaking production of “Southern Gothic,” Windy City Playhouse chose to mount an interesting production of this historically important play about gay life.

Known for their immersive, environmental productions such as in “Noises Off” and The Recommendation” Windy City Playhouse put its own unique twist on it, bringing the production right into the audience’s lap.

Scenic designer William Boles has created a plush, Upper East Side Manhattan apartment setting, decorated in the bright, garish style of 1968 so that it actually seems to become another character in this play.

The top floor flat which the audience visits via a faux elevator ride, contains a sunken living room, windows overlooking the city, a working kitchen (theatergoers can smell lasagna baking), a dining area and a loft bedroom/bathroom.

It’s large enough to not only provide the nine actors a multilevel playground in which to tell their story, but enough room to accommodate a forty-member audience who are the additional party guests.

As such, theatergoers are treated to many of the same drinks and refreshments as the characters, thus making the experience even more authentic and immersive. The audience may choose to simply sit in one place or they’re free to move to another seat for a different perspective.

The premise for Crowley’s look at gay life during the 60’s is a raucous birthday party hosted by lapsed Catholic, recovering alcoholic Michael (modeled after Mart Crowley) for his cynical, sarcastic Jewish friend, Harold.

Invited to the festivities are Donald, Michael’s younger boyfriend who’s chosen to abandon the hedonistic gay life style of Manhattan in favor of a quieter, more bucolic life in the Hamptons. Also included are longtime gay couple Hank, a high school math teacher, and his philandering lover, Larry. There are also likably flamboyant Emory and his smart, African-American bestie, Bernard,.

Eventually the gift that Emory purchased for Harold arrives at the door. It’s a hunky, young hustler, simply called the Midnight Cowboy. But the unexpected guest who really throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings is Alan, Michael’s married, upper-class, former college roommate.

He phoned earlier wanting to stop by to discuss a personal problem with his old friend. What Alan doesn’t anticipate is being uncomfortably thrust into a room filled with eight outrageous gay men.

The Boys in the Band at Windy City Playhouse (Michael Brosilow photo)
The Boys in the Band at Windy City Playhouse (Michael Brosilow photo)

Amidst the fun and festivities, fireworks ignite and the intermission-free one-act drama begins to resemble a gay version of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Directed with style, sharp wit and a great deal of passion by Carl Menninger, the cast features some of Chicago’s finest actors. Although a few of the actors seem a bit young for their roles, each brings enough warmth, gravitas and humor to his character.

Jackson Evans is recognized around Chicago as a talented comic musical theatre performer and character actor, but as Michael Evans proves that he’s very capable of doing drama. As the party’s host and the play’s leading character, Jackson superbly masks Michael’s depression and self-deprecating attitude with jokes, bizarre quotations and lots of effeminate fluff.

But as the booze begins to take over, and Michael’s discomfort with having Alan at the party becomes increasingly apparent, he begins to spar with Harold (played with poisonous venom by Sam Bell-Gurwitz) and his other guests.

By the end of the play, Michael has become a nasty, obnoxious, mean queen, reduced to a puddle of tears. This is one of the finest performances Jackson has ever given and begs to be seen.

The supporting actors are all equally talented and up to the task. Jordan Dell Harris who’s also become a fixture on area stages, is perfectly cast as Donald.  Denzel Tsopnang is both funny and touching as Bernard, particularly while zinging comic one-liners and later showing off his dramatic chops in Michael’s poignant telephone game.

As Emory, William Marquez is as funny as he is likable. Whenever the party starts to get too serious, the audience can count on Marquez for a humorous quip and a flamboyant pose.

Christian Edwin Cook as Alan, is excellent. Resembling a young David Hyde Pierce, theatergoers observe as he quietly takes in the outrageous, over-the-top characters all around him. But Cook is particularly fine when his character is forced to confront a possible closet relationship with someone from his pas

As Hank and Larry, Ryan Reilly and James Lee are both very good. Playing the dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks Cowboy, Kyle Patrick provides some innocence and much of the comic relief.

Audience reaction to this play will likely widely differ. For progressive, heterosexual patrons, this production may simply be entertaining and, perhaps, somewhat educational. Younger, gay men may dislike the drama because they find it filled with repugnant, gay stereotypes.

But what these theatergoers need to remember is that Crowley’s drama was groundbreaking for its time. This was the first major play to depict various gay characters discussing their lives. What seems cartoonish today was original and authentic for 1968.

While Menninger has directed his production to stress the humor, it can’t be denied that this is an emotional drama, as well as a period piece. The more mature gay man will recognize Crowley’s characters and situations as “the way we were.”

It’s true that we’ve come a long way since that time but, as one of the catalysts that inspired the Stonewall Riots, it’s equally important to reflect on where we began, how far we’ve journeyed and the progress that’s still needed for acceptance.\

By opening up the environment in order to immerse the audience, the play is exciting and allows theatergoers of all ages to empathize with Michael,  Harold and all the boys.

DETAILS:  “Boys in the Band” is at  Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, through April 29, 2940. For tickets and more information call (773) 891-8985 or visit Windy City Playhouse.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

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