REVIEWS: Rounding Out a Very Gay Year with “The Boys in the Band” and “Log Cabin”
It has been an unusually gay year for New York theatre. And that’s saying a lot. In one season, audiences were treated to first-rate revivals of three of the greatest “gay plays” in the canon: Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking “The Boys in the Band” (1968), Harvey Fierstein’s breakout “Torch Song Trilogy” (1982), and Tony Kushner’s masterpiece “Angels in America” (1994/1994). An ambitious artistic director could only dream of producing such a lineup. Larry Kramer’s “The Destiny of Me” (1992)—sequel to “The Normal Heart” (1985)—just received a starry reading hosted by The New Group, so perhaps the revival trend will continue.
New works touching on a panoply of gay themes also filled the boards, from the provocative “Afterglow” (open relationships) to Drew Droege’s “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns” (gay bachelorhood in a time of same sex marriage), Joshua Harmon’s “Skintight” (trials of age and beauty), and Jordan Harrison’s “Log Cabin” (empathy between LGBTQ people). This season also delivered stories not typically told, from Philip Dawkins’ “Charm”, which took a look at a community of LGBTQ teens (with emphasis on the T) mentored by a trans woman, to Donja Love’s “Sugar in Our Wounds”, a gay love story between two slaves on a plantation.
It wasn’t just the boys. Paula Vogel’s remarkable play “Indecent” told the story of “God of Vengeance”, a controversial 1907 play with a lesbian love story, and “Unexpected Joy”, a new musical, featured a modern family scenario with a matriarch in a same-sex relationship. The year ahead promises to offer more LGBTQ-related shows, from “Head Over Heels” to “The Prom” and “Torch Song” moving to Broadway. Below I offer my take on what many consider to be the first gay play (“The Boys in the Band”), and what might be the newest gay play (“Log Cabin”):
“The Boys in the Band” (Revival Play): I reflexively recoiled when I read the news that Ryan Murphy would produce the first Broadway production of “The Boys in the Band”—another limited engagement revival of a known property crammed with film and television stars. This 50th anniversary production of Mart Crowley’s landmark play, however, is well-worth the visit—or in most cases, I suspect, re-visit. In 1968, a year before the gay liberation movement would formally launch following the Stonewall Riots, “The Boys” broke ground in its unabashed and unvarnished look at the lives of gay men, featuring an (almost) entire cast of homosexual characters where homosexuality was explicitly central to the development of the plot. Never before had a play so forthrightly depicted gay men on stage—a depiction so honest and au courant that by the time of the film version’s release in 1970, it would prompt a backlash from within the gay community as many deemed the play passé, counter-productive to political progress, and even offensive. As a third rail for theatre companies, “The Boys” fell out of fashion, but has received a welcome rehabilitation over the past decade, culminating in this production directed with characteristic aplomb by Joe Mantello.
The plot is simple: a group of gay men—ostensibly friends—gather to celebrate a birthday, and largely spend the evening savaging each other and their way of life, aided by alcohol, a supposedly “straight” surprise visitor, and a heavy dose of closet-y self-hatred. It is 1968, after all, and the period-perfect costumes by David Zinn don’t let you forget it. The original Off-Broadway production of “The Boys” had trouble finding its cast—no one wanted to be associated with a play about a bunch of “deviants”; in 2018, it proudly features a stellar roster of some of the most prominent, out gay actors in the business—a sure sign of progress. Jim Parsons stars as Michael the party host, giving his finest, most nuanced stage performance yet. Alongside him are a transformed Zachary Quinto as Harold the birthday boy, a self-described “ugly, pock marked Jew fairy”; Matt Bomer as Donald, Michael’s occasional lover; Andrew Rannels as Larry, a sexual hedonist, and Tuc Watkins as Hank, a teacher married to a woman but living with Larry; Robin de Jésus as Emory, a flamboyant, working class bon vivant; Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, a buttoned up African American; Charlie Carver as the “Cowboy”, a birthday present for Harold; and Brian Hutchison as Alan, Michael’s “straight” college roommate whose arrival stirs the pot.
As different as they are, all of these men want to love and be loved, tormented by a society that won’t let them be themselves without shame or reproach. Gay historian Vito Russo once offered that “the internalized guilt and self-hatred of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.” I agree. Missing in this production, though, is the subtext of fear and persecution that undergirds Mr. Crowley’s text. It is not fatal, but noticeable, as modern sensibilities pervade the production, producing an air of disconnection the source of which I could not put my finger on, but no doubt felt. Despite this observation, the play remains joltingly funny and sad. Far from being offensive as some once claimed, what strikes me most about Mr. Crowley’s writing are the echoes I hear and see of these characters, for good and bad, in myself and my gay friends—50 years after their creation. “The Boys” stands as an important milestone in theatre history, but also as an important cultural and historical record of what life was like for gay men pre-liberation. It deserves to be celebrated and staged for years to come. Opened May 31st; runs through August 12th at the Booth Theatre.
“Log Cabin” (New Play, Playwrights Horizons): if the characters of Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” are often pegged for being stereotypes, the characters of Jordan Harrison’s “Log Cabin” couldn’t exist further from that charge. As the lives of gay men and lesbians become increasingly mainstreamed and transgender people increasingly seen, Mr. Harrison’s new play, receiving a world premiere run at Playwrights Horizons, is a comedy aimed at tackling a battery of contemporary issues around sexual orientation and gender identity. “Is this some kind of social experiment?” one character asks late in the play. I have the same question. In “Log Cabin”, Mr. Harrison supplies arguments disguised as people, principally two wealthy, low-key-insufferable New York City-dwelling same-sex couples: Ezra (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Chris (Philip James Brannon), and Jules (Dolly Wells) and Pam (Cindy Cheung). We check in on this quarrelsome quartet—who for some reason that escapes me are friends—over the course of five years from 2012 to 2017, mostly on birthdays but also, groan-inducingly, on Election Night 2016, Pam donning her suffragette white pantsuit.
They discuss marriage—Ezra and Chris are taking the plunge—and parenthood—Jules and Pam are ready, Ezra and Chris are on different pages—and assorted mundanities of life for the 1%. Jules is British, Pam mostly monosyllabic, Ezra largely neuroses, and Chris rather hot and cold. What all four share are some glaring blindspots in their wokeness—not surprising given Ezra’s self-proclaimed label as a “bleeding heart neo-con”, but interesting since Pam is Asian American and Chris is African American. The play’s clearest theme is its exploration, however clumsy, of the limits of empathy within the LGBTQ community itself. When the quartet invite over Ezra’s old friend Henry (Ian Harvie), who as “Helen” was his prom-date, things get heated—our L and G characters clearly uncomfortable (and largely uninformed) about a T. Henry’s girlfriend, Myna (an underused Talene Monahan) rounds out the acronym registering as a B or Q. They pepper Henry with questions and pick a fight over the word “cis”, which Ezra and Chris find offensive. As they do so, they rarely make any smart or probing points. Instead, they defensively pummel a dinner guest with inappropriate, judgement-laden questions. It’s uncomfortable to observe, and—like the tormenting party game at the center of “The Boys in the Band”—rings false, however true the kernel of Mr. Harrison’s central idea about empathy might be.
Director Pam MacKinnon stages the play well, with a handsome, rotating set design by Allen Moyer, but ultimately, I am unsure what Mr. Harrison is trying to cohesively say with the many fragmented, tension-filled conversations of this play. This is disappointing given that his other most recent play, “The Amateurs”—seen at the Vineyard Theatre last winter—was the smartest, socially conscious play I’ve seen yet in the Trump era, even though it is set largely in the 13th century. Living in a culture war hellscape dulls the appetite to see such fights litigated on stage, especially when divorced from a larger, historical context that can help moor a debate. Theatre is always about ideas, however facile or complex, but when a mostly-naturalistic play so bluntly tackles contemporary issues, it helps for its characters to be people first and foremost, rather than the arguments they represent. Opened June 25th; runs through July 15th at Playwrights Horizons. Discount Tickets.