If you can get to town in the next couple of weeks do sneak a couple of tickets for The Boys in the Band at the Vaudeville theatre. Though headlined by Mark Gatiss and his real-life husband Ian Hallard, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play is a viciously crafted ensemble piece about a gay birthday party in New York written pre-Stonewall Riots. The occasional critic has called The Boys in the Band a stereotypical period piece but we could say that about Shakespeare couldn’t we?
I was invited by Miss McCarthy and we were both sold the minute we walked into the auditorium to the strains of Dionne Warwick’s theme from The Valley of the Dolls. The open set – a loft-living apartment filled with Scandi furniture and lightbox portraits of Judy, Bette and Barbara Stanwyck – made one breathless for the party to start. Michael (Hallard) owns the apartment. He’s a writer and a drinker (natch) planning a birthday party for Harold (Gatiss) who doesn’t make his bad witch at a christening appearance until the end of the first act.
As the guests arrive, the dialogue and the camp ricochets between the characters; flawlessly paced and crisply enunciated. We meet homeboy Donald who seems content to have retreated from the crossfire of New York gay life. Emory (James Holmes) is what used to be known as the Nelly of the group who attaches women’s names to everything and minces with limbs like wet spaghetti.
Teacher Hank (Nathan Nolan) and fashion photographer Larry (Ben Mansfield) are boyfriends with differing opinions about fidelity. Bernard (Greg Locket) works in a bookstore and indulges Emory by amiably playing Mammie to his Miss Scarlett. The surprise guests are the young, dumb and full of cum hustler (Jack Derges) who is Emory’s gift to Harold and Michael’s debonair, straight college chum Alan (John Hopkins).
Alan’s arrival while the boys are doing an impromptu flaming dance number learned on Fire Island is a charming moment that makes it obvious that any attempt at straight acting would be futile. It also opens the door for the flirtation between Alan and Hank. The Boys in the Band is a game of two halves: a camp, light comedy of manners and errors in the first half that takes a decidedly darker turn when self-styled ‘thirty-two year old ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy’ Harold arrives in a fug of marijuana and Michael hits the bottle.
Glancing at the audience in the interval, it was biased towards gay men of my age and older who grew-up looking for a gay family and found characters all too similar to those in The Boys in the Band. We used camp as a defence mechanism between ‘just us girls’ and lived in a climate of silent hostility and, on numerous occasions, physical and verbal abuse. I’d urge the younger gays to watch The Boys in the Band if only to appreciate how fortunate they are to live in kinder times.
That said, the questions being asked by the play, the insecurities that are revealed and the venom when fangs show are still as pertinent today on what it is no longer PC to call the gay scene. Larry’s defiant belief in his right to an open relationship despite loving Hank is shared by the countless married or partnered men on and off Grindr.
Michael’s fur coat and no knickers existence keeping up appearances while quietly dying inside is also a familiar story. The desire to impress that eats at his soul is good old fashioned fear and self-loathing beautifully played by Hallard. The only character you could call happy with his lot is the hustler dressed as a cowboy; Mart Crowley suggesting ignorance is indeed bliss.
I particularly enjoyed Gatiss and Hallard hurling acid drops at each other: Harold scoring the hollow victory of being inured to any discernible emotion at all. His inability to feel hurt appeared to be the worst case of self-harm at the party. I won’t spoil the subplot about the increasingly drunk Alan’s evening in the homosexual shark tank but it isn’t without incident.
Of the second act, a critic wrote it ‘offers such an unremittingly bleak portrait of gay men -stereotypically bitchy, corroded with anxiety and self-hatred – that at times it is uncomfortable to watch’. If I were director Adam Penford I would take that has a huge compliment. Uncomfortable to watch? Imagine how uncomfortable it was to live as a gay man in the late 1960s. The line that rips your heart out is when Michael breaks down in Donald’s arms and says ‘show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse’.
Actually, Michael didn’t have to look too far for two happy homosexuals. Larry and Hank, having declared their love for each other, are left off-stage presumably making passionate love. So, no, I don’t think The Boys in the Band is an unremittingly bleak picture of gay men. As in life, some find happiness and some don’t. I’d like to think Harold searches for his heart, gets Michael into the Betty Ford Clinic and they decide to turn their fire on the rest of the world as a couple.
Watching The Boys in the Band on the night before Valentine’s Day made me think that we’ve come a long way, baby. We have gay couples on billboards advertising national banks, we have the gay marriage that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime and we have gay couples with kids. Without those Boys in the Band – some of whom I could imagine participating in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 – arguably none of this would have been possible. Go see the play, Rowley.