Mart Crowley's historic gay play The Boys in the Band (1968) is the mother of them all. When it premiered off-Broadway a full year before the seminal Stonewall riots, Crowley's acid-dipped drama shocked theater-goers with its full frontal assault. No one had ever been this close to a homosexual on stage, and here were eight "screaming faggots" going at it without apology and without the wrath of God. The view was mind-blowing. Closet doors blew off their hinges. Crowley led the way for Larry Kramer, Harry Kondoleon, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner. Everyone followed him.
Gay granny still has the power to shock, I'm pleased to say, and in Country Playhouse's exceptionally vivid production this dowager is still the Queen of the May. Crowley fills the stage with a panoply of gay archetypes. While he was later criticized for these stereotypes, après Stonewall, the picture he paints, although theatrical, is valid and true. And his major theme of a "family" sticking together to battle society's prejudice is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
Cultured and sophisticated Michael (Travis Springfield), living the good life on credit while he quotes B-movies, throws a birthday party for best friend Harold (L. Robert Westeen), the bitch queen from hell, who is obsessed with fading looks and growing older. Whereas Michael turns his self-loathing outward and lashes at those he loves, Harold turns his bitterness inward. But when prompted, Harold is a master of the put-down, the stinging rebuke, the bon mot that leaves a mark. He's like a meaner Oscar Wilde.
Among the friends are Hank and Larry (Tad Howington and Bob Galley), a straight-acting couple who bicker about the rules of monogamy. Hank wants Larry; Larry wants Hank...and anyone else whose strikes his fancy.
Emory (Jay Menchaca) is the flamer, the nellie queen whose limp wrist can whip up a casserole or lead the boys in old dance routines. He is "out" before there was a word for it. Bernard (Jarred Tettey) is black and the constant butt of Emory's Aunt Jamima sneers and taunts. Donald (Adam Richardson) is Michael's sometime lover who has moved out of New York and away from the gay scene. He hasn't yet learned that you can run but you can't hide from your own demons.
Cowboy (Jake Bevill) is the birthday present Emory has arranged for Harold. This naive hustler has a four-star appearance but a one-star mind. The surprise of the evening is the arrival of Alan (Louis Crespo), Michael's former college roommate, married with children, who calls in distress and must talk to his old friend immediately. Alan is the wrench thrown into the works.
Fueled by alcohol, lots of it, and years of pent-up fury, the party rapidly spins out of control. Alan attacks Emory for his obvious sissyness, but seems a little too curious about butch Hank. Crowley wisely lets us draw our own conclusion about Alan's conflicted opinions, never revealing what he wanted to confess to Michael.
Michael invents a telephone game, something like Truth or Dare, where each guy has to call the one person he really loved and tell them so. Harold wisely declines, but the others are drawn in by Michael's bullying and piercing needling. Fears and obsessions are laid out, bare and unforgiving, allowing the fine ensemble to ramp up the drama. Although the melodramatics get close to the edge, Crowley always falls back on Harold's wickedly funny one-liners or Emory's prancing lest the proceedings go too far.
The ensemble is nigh-on pitch perfect. While Michael has never been a role the audience warms to, we at least understand his horribly prickly exterior under Springfield's detailed portrayal. When he cracks at the end, falling into the steady waiting arms of Donald, he hasn't had a breakthrough as much as another horrible night in a lifetime of them.
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Westeen is superb as cool-as-a-spider Harold, coiled up inside his Nehru jacket, ready to pounce and devour all who come too near. Menchaca has the play's most showy role, and he eats up Emory like a lush dessert, licking the plate, too, as he swishes through designer Stuart Purdy's well-appointed upper East side apartment with its spiral staircase leading to the loft bedroom and lined with Broadway musical posters. (Purdy does even better work as director, filling out Crowley's rich panoply with flowing ease and multiple tiny touches that enrich the story and touch us deeply.) Crespo keeps us guessing as to Alan's inner turmoil, while Richardson, Galley, Howington, Tettey, and Bevill fill in their characters with insight and warmth. The boys in the band never sounded so in tune.
As the first of its genre, practically defining the term "gay" play, Crowley's Boys in the Band remains the exemplar. As a testament to its time, its historical significance can not be downplayed, but it's a mighty good play, too, full of laugh-out-loud wit and stop-your-breath action. It's still one of a kind. And you can't beat its message that no matter how beaten down you are, there's strength and solidarity in family, whatever that may be. After all the drama and searing heartache, Harold leaves with his cowboy trick but turns back to Michael and calmly says, "Call you tomorrow." No matter what -- closeted, straight-acting, queeny, self-loathing -- these guys stick together. There's pride in that.
Mart Crowley's inspiring and influential gay drama romps through January 26 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. To purchase tickets, visit the theater's website or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.