One of the strangest sights of any theatrical season has to be The Boys in the Band on a community-theater stage in Irvine.
Mart Crowley's 1968 play is filled with self-described self-loathing homosexuals, pansies, fairies and queens. Sure, the play is 31 years old and anyone offended by its language, its high camp or the low desperation of its guilt-riddled gay men deserves to be bitch-slapped. But this is Irvine, and this is a community-theater company, and this is the recreation center of something called Turtle Rock Community Park. On the door outside, there's a sign-up sheet for summer youth camp; inside the door, men kiss one another, scream at one another, call one another "cunt" and muse wistfully about anonymous sex in gay bathhouses.
While obviously incongruous, the setting is also strangely comforting. The fact that a small community theater in Irvine would choose to produce this play and encounter no obvious resistance for doing so indicates something very good about artistic freedom.
If only the production deserved as much credit.
Seven gay men, one gay hustler dressed as a cowboy, and one ostensibly straight man gather in a Manhattan apartment for a birthday party that turns into a bitter, desperate struggle for control and emotional connection. While he gets a few good performances out of his large cast, director Marc LeBlanc's production fails almost entirely to do what's absolutely necessary: take the theatergoer back in time to a world before gay liberation and AIDS. The awkwardly written and structured script doesn't help. Nor does the set design, which is utterly lacking in compelling visuals. That's no small matter. One of the themes of this play—as it is for so many plays written by contemporary gay playwrights, from Nicky Silver to Richard Greenberg—is the gay community's obsession with physical appearance. Yet, visually speaking, this play constantly works against itself, making it even more difficult to believe. Take protagonist Michael (Mark Torreso), a 30-year-old unhappy Catholic who covers up his guilt and self-loathing by living on credit. He's supposed to like fancy clothes and furnishings, but the set design of his supposedly hip Manhattan apartment, as well as the clothes he wears, is laughably tacky and cheap, self-parodic send-ups from the remainder bin at Kmart.
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With a few exceptions, the other actors are either too old or physically ill-suited to play young, virile, urban gay men. That's important because this play's emotional immediacy and the sympathy we should feel for these characters springs not from the fact that they're middle-aged men looking back on their glory years, but that they're young men in the prime of life whose emotional barriers and self-revulsion keep them from fully experiencing their lives.
That's the universal truth in this play, and that's why ambitious theater companies continue to stage it three decades on: ultimately, it's less a gay play than a human play.
This is a historically important play in terms of gay theater and American theater in general, but it's also one that in retrospect can feel tremendously poignant—in the hands of a good director, the specter of AIDS can make the play downright terrifying. While there are some touching moments, some funny moments and even some fairly powerful moments, this Boys in the Band doesn't have enough moments of any kind to make for truly compelling theater.
Boys in the Band at Turtle Rock Community Park, 1 Sunnyhill, Irvine, (949) 857-5496. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $10.