Crowley's The Boys in the Band and Shepard's A Lie of the Mind Still Look Fresh
I never understand complaints about plays being "dated." Naturally, all plays that weren't written yesterday are dated: Their diction, their costumes, their stage conventions, and their mores all belong to the time when they were conceived. That's what makes them interesting: the excitement of comparing their view of the world with ours, of seeing how well their sense of humanity still holds up, or doesn't, despite all the obstacles time has piled in between.
Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band is approaching its 41st birthday; Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind premiered 25 years ago. Though both are "dated," neither feels old-hat: The flaws perceivable in them now are the same ones noted when they were born. And thanks to largely effective productions, the life in both seems fresh, a vivid picture of Then that tells us, by comparison, a lot about Now.
Boys was the first mainstream play to feature all gay characters, with one possible straight thrown in for contrast. It employs the old convention, still in use, of a one-of-each-type group of people trapped in a confined space. Michael's birthday party for his dear and loathed friend Harold, which nobody is allowed to leave, becomes the equivalent of the drifting lifeboat, the snowed-in bus stop, the deadlocked jury room, and other locales that have served the genre. Amid tears and laughter, every character shows what mettle he has, or lacks, and a social consensus either is or isn't reached before rescue, or disaster, arrives.
Crowley's characters escape, but they carry disaster within them, in the form of gay men's ongoing problem with a world where homosexuality is a crime. Time has alleviated, but not eradicated, the problem. That Crowley used the convention now seems, in retrospect, a subversive act. The set of types trapped in one place implies a microcosm of society. By composing his society entirely of gay men, Crowley was positing their equivalence to the larger society: Gays = people. In a theatrical culture that for centuries had chiefly viewed homosexuals as weirdos, psychos, home-wreckers, or comic sissies, this was an astonishing step forward.
Prophetic, too, was the script's exploration of issues like gay identity, internalized self-hatred, and the same vexed question about fidelity in gay relationships that torments the contemporary couple in The Pride. Crowley wove them all into this tautly crafted, slightly contrived, melodrama, laced with cyanide-flecked gag lines, an astonishing number of which went instantly into common urban parlance.
Director Jack Cummings III's Transport Group revival of Boys, staged in a loft space, with the audience as silent "guests" seated around Michael's apartment, heightens the dramatic pressure with its closeness while dissipating some of the precious details. You can't scan the group's varied reactions to an event if one is leaning on the windowsill right behind you, and two more huddle in a far corner, past the range of any lamp. Judging the performances gets further complicated by persistent memories of the original 1969 cast: Its spectacular work, preserved in the film version, often seems to hover over today's intonations and stances; Jon Levinson's sardonic Harold, in particular, seems to transmit echoes of the unforgettable Leonard Frey.
No question, though, about one performance: Jonathan Hammond's Michael, a tightly wound ball of nerves, always seemingly about to explode as he veers from giddy camp sociability to snark-tongued nastiness and on to cold, naked rage before he collapses in a blubbering heap. Hammond took one hostile moment so fiercely that I thought Kevyn Morrow's Bernard—an exceptionally strong, forthright performance in a role often played weakly—might be about to deck him. Understandably: Michael, a quasi-autobiographical figure, is an awful person; worse, he knows it. One reason Crowley's play retains its freshness, notwithstanding its contrivances, is that he was unafraid to put his own worst, as well as his best, self into it—another bold act, in a time when gays lived surrounded by fear.
A Lie of the Mind offers a handy hetero counterbalance to Boys—an unsparingly crazy picture of all that's dreadful in "normal" family life, perfectly demonstrating what Michael's friends came to Manhattan to escape. Jake (Alessandro Nivola) and Beth (Marin Ireland) are a Wild West Romeo and Juliet, two kids so insanely in love they pick up each other's brain waves, but whose families loathe each other. Naturally, Jake, obsessively jealous, has beaten Beth senseless, causing brain damage. Naturally, she still loves him anyway, though this somehow doesn't stop her, while recuperating, from deciding she must marry Jake's brother, Frankie (Josh Hamilton), triggering frenzies in her own brother, Mike (Frank Whaley), whose fixation on Beth is as obsessive as that of Jake's sister, Sally (Maggie Siff), for her paranoid bro.
Add three elders—Jake's mom (Karen Young) and Beth's parents (Laurie Metcalf and Keith Carradine)—all mired in detachment or denial, and you have the recipe for a Shepard vision. Occupying opposite halves of the stage, the two clans suggest a stereopticon slide, its paired pictures somehow gone too far out of kilter to produce a coherent three-dimensional image.
The recipe never jells; the ingredients, familiar from many earlier Shepard plays, have been ladled on too thickly. The narrative seems to implode, tunneling away from the audience rather than exploding into action, while the characters appear to lose interest in it before we do.
The original production was sandbagged by its all-star cast's penchant for interminable pauses. Ethan Hawke's revival for the New Group, more efficient, also shows a sharper grasp of the play's innumerable parallels, and of the innate shape that underlies its head-scratching eccentricities. His all-star cast registers with uneven force, but at least they all seem to be in the same play. Carradine and Metcalf handle their roles with charismatic ease; Hamilton's preppy urban persona adapts surprisingly well to this wilderness context. Ireland and Nivola, in the two most taxing roles, come off best of all, affirming that Hawke has made the best possible case for this piece of theatrical perplexity.
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