And The Band Plays On

The Boys in the Band, one of the first popular modern-day plays about gay life, opened in New York City in April 1968. To celebrate the play's 30th anniversary, New Heights Theatre has dusted off the cobwebs and revived this old warhorse. The play is full of swishy characters and stories about anonymous sex, prostitution and the devastating effects of the closet, and to some it might seem antiquated; perhaps even dangerous, with all its self-destructive characters who maintain outdated ideas about what it means to be gay. But as painful as this play may be to watch, The Boys in the Band locates a seminal moment in the gay-rights movement, a moment rich with self-discovery and burgeoning self-acceptance.

And the political, free-to-be-you-and-me '60s is vibrant and very much alive -- its hideous aesthetic intact -- on stage at New Heights Theatre. The play opens with Michael (Joel Sandel) fussing around his apartment preparing for Harold's birthday bash. Michael is a man who can't quite get it together. He's bad with money and relationships, and please, please, please, don't even bring up his mother. But one thing Michael does have is great digs. The orange Naugahyde couch and the long, low hi-fi set leave no question we are at ground zero of 1968 bachelor-pad cool.

But mostly Michael is a perpetual whiner, so full of self-mockery and bitterness that it's a wonder he has any friends at all. He likes cashmere, cracked crab, champagne and believing that "there is nothing quite so good as feeling sorry for ourselves."

One by one, the guys show up. There's Donald (Kent Johnson), the loser who reads all day and works as a janitor since he dropped out of Cornell. Emory (Michael Johnston) and Bernard (Adrian Porter), the two most effeminate of Michael's friends, cook dinner and squeal a lot. Emory "can't keep his pronouns straight" and refers to all his men friends as "she." There's the feuding couple, Hank (Kevin White) and Larry (Diego Garcia), and Alan (Jonathan McVay), a married gay man who insists he's straight. Cowboy (Ned Locario III), the boneheaded, pretty-boy whore, comes half-naked as a birthday gift for Harold. Then, in waltzes flashy Harold (Randall Jobe), wearing sunglasses and a black-and-white Nehru jacket. Harold is the only man at the party with a mouth as vitriolic as Michael's.

All these men are capable of cruelty. They fight, outrage Alan -- who really does believe he's straight, even though he had a long, torrid affair with a man in college -- and eventually hug and make up; they even forgive Michael, though he's spent the entire evening picking apart his friends.

The play is basically a snapshot of gay life in the late '60s in New York City. And because there is no central conflict other than the struggle each character has with his sexual identity, the script has a lot of dramatically weak moments. Sometimes the stage practically sags in the middle under the weight of eight basically inert actors listening to the guy at center stage vent about a past lover, a badly behaved mother or an ugly-hearted school chum. These angst-ridden characters feel very sorry for themselves out loud, and talk too long and too pointedly about their situation, making such obvious pronouncements as: "If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so much." As fuzzy as this statement is, it is at the heart of this play, about a group of marginalized people who have only begun to fight for their place in the world.

In spite of its preachy pronouncements, the play is important; it articulates a repressed people's struggle to redefine themselves and cast aside the language of their oppressors. And director Ron Jones has put together a handsome rendition of this important work. Special kudos to Johnston as the almost girlish Emory, along with his sidekick Bernard, played with tender patience by Porter. These two actors all but steal the stage from a very competent cast.

For all its stereotypes and antiquated ideas about gay life, The Boys in the Band remains one of the most significant artifacts from an important period in the history of the gay-rights movement.

The Boys in the Band runs through November 14 at New Heights Theatre, 339 West 19th, 869-8927. $15.

Harm's Way runs through October 31 at Last Concert Cafe, 1403 Nance, 226-8563. $10.


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