How can a play feel both dated and relevant? Stereotypical yet viscerally authentic? Generic yet highly specific?
Coming off the heels of its 50th year anniversary revival run on Broadway, Boys in the Band, directed by Carl Menninger, is currently playing at Windy City Playhouse in an immersive theatre style. It is considered one of the first mainstream plays to depict gay men in earnest, without resorting to tokenization or jokes. The plot centers around five gay friends who throw a birthday party for their acerbic friend, Harold (Sam Bell Gurwitz), at Michael’s (Jackson Evans) apartment. Coupling Harold’s late arrival is an unsuspected visit by Michael’s college friend, Alan (Christian Edwin Cook), who does not know Michael is gay. As the night unravels, the friends gradually get more drunk and let their insecurities loose. Though the language is notably dated — like the use of “homosexual” instead of “gay” and several racialized comments — the feelings of ostracization and self-loathing from not being validated is a timeless sentiment. The play is timeless; the production feels dated, getting trapped in the time period and inhibiting the story’s ability to radiate its more universal themes.
In typical Windy City style, the intimate seating and close quarters places the audience right in the action of the play. Upon entering, I was transported into the 1960s. William Boles, the scenic designer, creates a swanky, well accented apartment. The patterned wallpaper — de rigueur for the 60s — and the loud reds and blues make the living room feel more like a display room than a lived-in space. That choice becomes very clear once we meet Michael, the owner of the apartment and host of the party, who is all about appearances until his own starts crumbling down. The costumes from designer Uriel Gomez do effective work of placing us in the 60s, with lots of bell bottoms and striped shirts. However, the style is not variable enough to differentiate the characters from each other. The issue I had with costumes is similar to the issue I had with the direction and production in general: rather than watching a revival, it felt like I was watching the premier of this play in 1968.
I wonder how much of the set-up has been lost or augmented through the immersive set-up. I enjoyed how this production allows you to single in on one story. When Larry (James Lee) and Hank (Ryan Reilly) enter the apartment, it is clear that they have just fought with each other. It was in their stares and glances that I was able to watch their narrative unfold into an unconventional yet emotionally apt exchange of affection. When neither Larry nor Hank was not involved, I would look at where they were and what they were doing — which meant I was not paying attention to the more central conversations that were happening. My attention to Larry and Hank is a testament to Lee’s and Reilly’s presence in the room and their complete commitment to being in the moment in their relationship. They played the insecurity and the passion of their relationship through palpable stares and believable reactions. They each brought a tenderness yet steadfastness to their characters that made me root for the future of their relationship. In being able to choose my own character, the ensemble-driven aspect of this production faded. I cared the most about Larry and Hank’s relationship, so when their moment of emotional catharsis came, the sarcastic quips from other characters were annoying rather than humorous. Perhaps if this played in a traditional proscenium stage, the humor would radiate through.
Regardless, Boys in the Band was quite successful at making me feel disappointment, sadness, and sympathy for these men. Throughout, the audience is let into a world where our characters’ desires are policed and made illegal. A place where attraction and love must be managed, controlled, and negotiated even in private spaces. Nonetheless, the words of this play expose some of the more timely and relevant themes, whereas the direction seems to emphasize the more period elements. While the direction keeps this play in the 60s, Crowley’s script echoes a timeless portrait of what it looks like to bury who you are and who you love. It shows how repression and self-loathing can restrict the love we are able to express in our relationships. The production shows us that the 60s had great outfits, beautiful colors and gay people. The script demands that we reckon with the loneliness that occurs when you exist on the margins of society and how loneliness impacts the community we keep.
Carl Menninger (Director)
William Boles (Scenic Designer)
Uriel Gomez (Costume Designer)
Erik Barry (Lighting Designer)
Sarah Espinoza (Sound Designer)
Mealah Heidenreich (Properties Designer & Set Dressing)
Max Fabian (Violence & Intimacy Director)
Jenniffer Thusing (Production Stage Manager)
Spencer Fritz (Assistant Stage Manager)
Jonah White (Master Electrician)
Jonathan Schleyer (Technical Director)
Ellen White (Production Manager)
Michael Brosilow (Photographer)