"Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse." That's only one of the acid-tongued lines from The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's classic 1968 play about a liquor-soaked birthday party among eight gay male friends that goes from wittily bitchy to heartbreakingly brutal in the course of a night...and all of it amid the pressure-cooker homophobia (and self-hatred) of the pre-Stonewall gay New York subculture. The play, full of both bile and tenderness, is currently having its first major New York revival since 1996 (with Jonathan Hammond giving a razor-sharp performance in the lead role of Michael, the party's toxically alcoholic host). But beware! This production, through March 14 by the Transport Group, is set in an actual loft, without intermission, meaning you will sit there among the party guests with a close-up on all the hilarity, intimacy, and sometimes unbearable tension you'd usually watch at a remove. We talked with the show's (straight!) director, Jack Cummings III.
Out: What drew you to restaging Boys In The Band?
Jack Cummings III: It's legendary among gay audiences in particular for its humor and all the famous lines. But I was overwhelmed by the depth of humanity for the individual characters and their relationships. These men are incredibly meaningful for each other.
What about people who say the play is a relic of gay self-hatred?
I don't understand it. A great play is a great play. We wouldn't be filling our houses if it were otherwise. People feel they're obligated to utter "self-hatred" when the play is mentioned. I don't know what good drama doesn't have characters that feel that way, having directed Strindberg, Ibsen, Williams, and Inge. Why should gay characters be any different?
Also I had to do research for this play. Charles Kaiser's The Gay Metropolis and Edmund White's City Boy were our bibles. These were men who were instructed forcefully by society to hate themselves. When every single element of the culture is telling you you're defective and awful, you're not going to wake up every day wanting to go to the park for a picnic. Yet despite that, there's love between them and [different characters] learn things, that they may have to make sacrifices and grow up. Donald is there to hold Michael when Michael's breaking down. So there's a deep layer of love filling that play like nobody's business.
What, in your view, happens in the course of this play, of this Night from Hell?
I think the idea of weakness...people hate weakness because they themselves are weak. Michael has that line to Alan [Michael's WASPy, putatively straight, married college roommate, who drops into the party unannounced, and in mysterious anguish], "You're much weaker than you realize," but Michael hates the weakness in himself so much that he annihilates everyone else as a result. With men, weakness is a big issue.
In your view, working in the theater, are gay men the same today as they are depicted in this play?
These are eight of the most intelligent characters. The cultural references they're throwing around, the wit and the humor -- it's kind of astounding. They're nobody's fools. I know a lot of gay men who are hilarious and talented and smart like them. Who's the winner of Project Runway? Christian Siriano. You can't tell me he's not effeminate. Sean Hayes on Will and Grace -- that's a direct descendant of [BITB's most femmy character] Emory. And Jay McCarroll, who won the first season of Runway, he has total traits of [BITB's icily bitchy] Harold. I'd like to have lunch with him and have him comment on everybody.
So Mart Crowley, the playwright, has been involved in the production. What's his take on it been?
He was nervous that the proximity of the audience to the actors would hinder the laughs, but we've had five shows, and, knock on wood, that department is going well. Mart's very pleased with the show now that he's seen it.
What was your idea for this production?
We've had our time looking at these characters from afar in that neat frame of a proscenium. I thought, What would it be like if we physically brought the audience into the apartment? Would it be more filmic where you're seeing extreme close-ups and getting more deep focus? People in the audience have told me they felt like they were at the party and went through the night with [the characters].
It's true, it's way more intimate but also sometimes way more tense and uncomfortable!
Especially those last 12 pages! It's like when you're at a party and something goes awry and you get frozen by it and don't know what to do. Or how a person [like Michael] can actually control a room. And those men are drinking so heavily. My wife sat next to the bar and everyone's going to the bar as often as they can.
The last moment of the play, after all the explosive drama, when only Alan is left, is such a moving denouement. What did you want it to feel like or transmit?
That the characters will try from there. There's no guarantees. It's one night, and we'll see. The book Alan is reading at the end is The Winter of our Discontent.
What about Alan and the play's eternal mystery? Do you think he's gay?
Whether he is or not, he's making a choice to [redacted to avoid a spoiler]. I think that's why he stays [at the increasingly brutal party]. He has something to prove to himself, and his body knows that by staying he'll reach some sort of conclusion. His soul will know.
And what about the other eternal mystery: What Michael inscribes on his birthday gift to his partner-in-bitchery, Harold, which obviously moves Harold so much? What did he write?
I know from Mart's life who the real-life Harold is, and I can't say what was written. I told the two actors, though.
So you're not going to tell me?
I can't. Mart would kill me. It's very simple and powerful but nothing racy.
Just "I love you"?
No. It's not romantic.
But something very sweet?
The Boys in the Band is playing now through March 14. For more information and tickets, visit the Transport Group's website.