Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Windy City Playhouse has rapidly become synonymous with “immersive theater” ever since its opening of Southern Gothic two years ago, and now, with its mounting of Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 play The Boys in the Band (the one-act version recently revived on Broadway), it is once again seeking to redefine the way in which we witness plays. Either a transformative piece of theatre that fed directly the gay rights movement or a period work trapped in amber about a varied group of homosexuals, Boys had the distinction of being the first significant mainstream play about the lives of gay people, and the 2018 revival (which starred Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer, among others) provided a sharp reminder of how far gay people have come, the challenges that they have faced and continue to face, and the need to step out of the closet and be true to who they are.
Windy City’s version, directed by Carl Menninger, totally immerses its audience in the party that forms the play’s plot. On a William Boles set featuring red walls, a sunken living room, and ceiling and wall coverings that so clearly say “60s” that the members of the audience sitting on benches around the room seem utterly out of place, Michael (Jackson Evans) hosts a gathering of friends and frenemies to celebrate the birthday of one of the latter, Harold (Sam Bell-Gurwitz). As the party rolls on, Michael becomes increasingly drunk and increasingly caustic, and relationships dissolve before our eyes, which cannot believe the trainwreck they are watching. In ninety quick minutes fueled by Michael’s self-loathing, his and most of the guests’ lives are altered dramatically, and the fly-on-the-wall proximity in which we are seated magnifies the experience.
Evans is outstanding in the central role, showing just enough of his internalized anger in flashes at the start as he converses with Donald (Jordan Dell Harris), the first of his guests to arrive, to set up his eventual breakdown. Bell-Gurwitz’s Harold is also trapped within himself, but in a different way: he is an intellectual who has built walls around himself so that very little can really affect him, leaving him almost an outside observer at this party in his honor. Unlike Michael and Donald (who has moved to the Hamptons to escape the gay scene in NYC), Harold is completely open and comfortable with his sexuality. It is reflected in the way he dresses, talks, and moves, though nowhere near the extreme of Emory (William Marquez, happily chewing up the scenery from the moment he enters). Emory’s affect is so effeminate that, when Michael’s old college roommate Alan (Christian Edward Cook) arrives unexpectedly, it takes no time at all before Emory’s very presence makes the conservative, homophobic Alan extremely uncomfortable, though he instantly befriends Hank (Ryan Reilly), who passes so easily as straight that even though he is there with his lover Larry (James Lee) Alan sees nothing. The final characters are Kyle Patrick’s Cowboy, a youthful “birthday present” for Harold, and Bernard (Denzel Tsopnang), the lone Black man among this company.
While the first half of Boys is laugh-out-loud funny, its second part, revolving around a “party game” that the bitter Michael makes everyone play, is dark. The game is designed to reveal everyone’s secrets and clearly intended to result in married-with-children Alan to exit the closet the host is sure he inhabits while leading everyone present through some powerful and painful moments. Bernard actually breaks down after his turn, underscoring just how frightening this game can be for these 1960s men to play, and almost no one comes through it unscathed.
It seems almost quaint, in a way, to watch a period piece about gay men that exists in a pre-AIDS world still full of bathhouses and partner-hopping. (Larry, for one, revels in his many lovers and argues with Hank about it.) Knowing what the future holds certainly affects how we feel as we watch this play full of the normal issues of interpersonal relationships—the ones that don’t involve premature, wasteful death. But as Menninger immerses us into the party—eat the snacks! drink what the characters do!—Crowley’s play comes alive in ways it probably never has before. Seeing Alan’s effete form almost at all times—he goes offstage a lot in the proscenium version—is a constant reminder of his intrusive presence here, and seeing Larry and Hank tenderly making love in the upstairs bedroom is so much more perfect than when that room is out of sight. It’s a brilliant, powerful staging that amplifies every experience in this highly emotional play, and another engaging production from this unique and original theatre.
The Boys in the Band is now playing at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 Irving Park Road, Chicago, IL, until April 19. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.