A year before riots erupted outside the now iconic Stonewall Inn, Mark Crowley’s The Boys in the Band premiered off-broadway and subsequently ran for more than 1,000 performances. With nine male characters, almost all of whom are openly gay, it courageously exposed what it meant to be gay to a wider national audience at a critical turning point in American cultural politics.
Almost 50 years later, Adam Penford’s production emphasises the continuing resonance of Crowley’s play for contemporary gay lives. Yet instead of transporting the 40th birthday party of Harold (Mark Gatiss) to a 2016 minimalist loft in the Meatpacking district, Penford retains the original setting and treats it as a period piece. Set and costume designer Rebecca Brower creates a lavish late 60s New York apartment, complete with portraits of old Hollywood actresses. Hints of romanticization blended with an aura of ‘retro’ chic create a sort of nostalgia and a feeling of reflection. Whereas the olive green sofa and teak coffee table feel quite contemporary, the landline rotary dial telephone reads as cutely quaint, if not utterly archaic. The juxtaposition makes clear that while this play is set in the past, it can still reveal much about the present.
It does, however, take a while to do so. Michael (Ian Hallard) as host prepares for the night’s festivities while he chats to Donald (Daniel Boys) about depression, psychoanalysis, sexual deviances and old friends. Both Hallard and Boys colour their characters formidably, but the tireless exposition in the first act obviously underpinning later events weighs down what should be effervescent conversation. As all the other guests arrive, including the only black gay man of the bunch, Bernard (Greg Lockett), witty remarks and casually racist retorts are thrown about as drinks are poured and food is prepared. The jokes sometimes land, but at times feel particularly dated.
The play finds its heart in the second act with the boys playing a cruel party game. The racism is thankfully confronted (although perhaps not in its entirety) and Crawley provides a hope found in communion. The strong ensemble hit their stride in the second act: Gatiss is a delight as Harold, John Hopkins makes the perfect straight man as tux-wearing Alan with his booming voice; and Ben Mansfield is understated but compelling as Larry, the spokesperson for the emerging sexual revolution.
Beneath the sharp tongues we are shown the overwhelming shame, self-hate, rage, and heartache that fuels these characters. Like the divas adorning the back wall of the stage, there lies a deep tragedy beneath the glamorous veneer. What Penford astutely observes is that these are not dissimilar to the issues that continue to plague gay men today: ‘Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse’. The Boys in the Band is not just an entertaining piece full of strong performances, it demonstrates perpetual issues affecting gay men as a first step in combatting them.
But where it falls short is in failing to consider the vast differences between now and then — either the changing agenda of gay activism, the diversification of the gay community, the AIDS epidemic, or even the varying role of phones/mobiles as means of connection (or cruising). Similarly, the production does little to reflect on the play’s own history. With its layer of nostalgia, this doesn’t feel like a genuine moment in the past but a caricature of one. And one must ask: why choose to remount a production of Crowley’s play? Its existence is fascinating, but without any reflection on its relevance a simple reproduction becomes fatiguing.
None of this is necessary, of course, for the play to be entertaining. But to reproduce Crowley’s play and make such pertinent connections to the present without raising these questions — especially considering the dated nature of the piece — is to miss an opportunity for a potency which this cast and creative team is certainly capable.
The Boys in the Band is on until 30th October 2016 at the Park Theatre. Click here for more information.