Regional Reviews: Chicago
The apartment/set, designed by William Boles, is a bright red, one-and-a-half-story room with a kitchen nook, dining area, and the loft bedroom up a small flight of stairs. Ceiling to floor windows in one corner look out on an air shaft or some such non-skyline view of Manhattan, with gentle sound effects of the city below (credit to sound designer Sarah D. Espinoza). There are benches for the audience in a sunken living room in the center of the space and around the perimeter of the roomoffering great sightlines, ample space for the actors to move around, and even room for production staffers to offer drinks and hors d'oeuvres to the audience during the play.
The life-size immersive set is no gimmicks. It gives a sense of the actual space of the play's world, and if we don't exactly feel like a part of the action, we can better imagine it all without the barrier of a proscenium. It's a production design and concept so dramatic that it would be unthinkable to not start a review of this production with a description of it, yet the real distinction of this production is the nuanced, insightful acting of director Carl Menninger's cast. Menninger smooths over the more grating parts of Mart Crowley's scriptrecognizing it's unnecessary to punch up the bitchy wisecracks of the 1960s-era gay men who have assembled for a birthday partyand focuses on the emotions underlying these fragile, damaged characters.
The best parts of the production are in its second half of this intermissionless staging, when the men agree to play the host's "party game" of calling someone they loved and telling that person they loved them. Menninger lets his actors take their time in these scenes, and the performances he gets from them lift the characters from period caricatures to relatable humans. Denzel Tsopnang deserves particular praise for his credibility in starting the host's improbable game. Preposterous as is Michael's suggestion that they call old and unrequited loves, Tsopnang shows how the African-American Bernard sees an opportunity to finally connect with the white son of his domestic mother's employer and goes along with the scheme.
Also especially noteworthy is William Marquez's Emory, whose effeminate but tough persona is lowered as he recalls teasing and taunts from high school classmates and the rejection of an older boy whom Emory felt he loved. Later, when the cohabiting couple Hank and Larry (Ryan Reilly and James Lee) make a somewhat public proclamation (to their answering service) of their love for each other, we sense that it is not only a declaration of love, but a brave move in light of the social pressures of the '60s era of the play. As "Cowboy," the hustler hired by Emory as a birthday present for Harold, Kyle Patrick is more naive and inexperienced than stupid, as Harold and some of the other guests so cruelly describe him to his face. From today's perspective, we see he could be a runaway and we're more sensitive to the exploitation of sex workers (or worse). Menninger and Patrick make wise choices in playing Cowboy as an innocent.
As Michael, the host, Jackson Evans does a fine job of moving the action forwardpushing his guests into playing his vicious "game" and keeping the tension high through his continual taunts and insults. Jordan Dell Harris is effective as the outsider Donald, who is only acquainted with Michael and tries to rein in Michael's worst impulses. Sam Bell-Gurwitz is the birthday boy Harold who, as he claims, is a worthy match for Michael and his acidic jabs. Christian Edwin Cook is Alan, the possibly gay or bisexual closeted college friend of Michael who arrives unexpectedly at the party and sparks the conflict. While Cook, like much of the cast, reads younger than their early-thirties characters, his Alan has the patrician qualities of a wealthy East-coaster down pat.
Menninger uses the space brilliantly, with action occurring all over the large playing area and keeping our focus where it should be, even as life goes on in other areas of the "apartment." His pacing of the dialogue has a spontaneous and realistic feel to it that believably approximates the activity of a party attended by nine people.
The '60s are re-created in loving and great detail, starting with the Tom Jones recordings played in the lobby before the show. The sound design incorporates period music tracks like a cut from Henry Mancini's Breakfast at Tiffany's score, spot-on costume designs by Uriel Gomez that even include Sansabelt slacks for Harold (Sam Bell-Gurwitz), and of course a "princess" phone among the props and set dressings provided by Mealah Heidenreich. Such extensive establishment of The Boys in the Band as a period piece excuses or at least explains some of the aspects of the play that are generally considered dated.
One of the differences between the world of The Boys in the Band and gay life today is the way the play's characters seem to feel isolated as an underground minoritysubject to social disapproval, persecution and prosecution for their orientation. Aa a result, Michael is said to have a self-loathing (today we call it internalized homophobia) that still exists but is likely not as prevalent today. Still, Crowley captures many issues of gay life that remain: the way casual sex can be a means of connecting that may lead to friendship, as it does with Michael and Donald; the challenges of maintaining a relationship allowing for outside partners vs. complete monogamy or something in between; gender identity issues of masculinity vs effeminacy (or points in between); coming out issues; and class consciousness. And, above all, the act of choosing a family among other LGBT's and allies.
The skill of Menninger and his artists in this production have convinced me that The Boys in the Band is a better and more enduring play than I had remembered.
The Boys in the Band runs through April 19, 2020, at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit windycityplayhouse.com or call 773-891-8985.