THERE IS A limit to how much pain a person can take. After a certain point, you must either scream your lungs out or go crazy. Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band pushes both its characters and its audience within inches of that breaking point. It is one of the mammoth achievements in recent American theatrical history.
While Band is about (in the words of one character) "six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer" at a birthday party, the play neither apologizes for the homosexual nor preaches about his plight in an heterosexual world. Rather, playwright Crowley sucks us into a grimly realistic slice of the gay life to lets us draw our own conclusions.
Michael, the party's host, it 30-ish, charming and witty. As the play opens, we find him talking with his friend Donald, as shy Cornell drop-out, about their respective analysts, over-loving mothers and financial blues. Gradually they reveal the defense mechanisms that help them survive in a world where "failure is the only thing with which [they] feel at home." For Donald, the only escape is to go to the library and read book after book. Michael, worried about getting old, stays alive with the help of self-deprecating wisecracks ("Well, one thing you can say about masturbation. . . you certainly don't have to look your best").
While they wait for the others to arrive, a hitch develops in the evening's party plans. Alan, a straight college roommate from Michael's college days, calls up and insists on coming over. Alan does not know that his old school chum is a homosexual, and Michael does not want Alan to be confronted with this piece of news now. (As he says, "Alan looks down on people in the theatre--so whatta you think he'll about this freak show I've got booked for dinner?")
WHEN ALAN refuses to be put off, Michael can do nothing except hope that his straight friend will have come and gone before the rest of the "boys" arrive. But some of the party guests beat Alan to the scene: Hank, an Ivy-League-looking married math teacher and his lover, Larry; Bernard, a cool black; Emory, a prissy, feminine interior decorator. By the time Harold (the birthday boy), Cowboy (a hustler being given to Harold for the night as a gift) and Alan appear, the flow of liquor has locked all those present into a violent carnival of sadistic-masochistic emotional destruction; no one may leave until he touches the bottom of his soul and accepts what he finds there.
THE CENTRAL feature of this devastating carnival is a game devised by Michael in which each person places a phone call to the one person "he has truly loved." As the characters take their turns, they simultaneously expose secret reserves of despair almost unbearable to watch.
Michael, perhaps the most "anxious queer' of them all, uses the game as a device to make all the others share in the self-hatred he feels at being a homosexual. While he hopes that "not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story," he cannot escape his conviction that misery is all he will ever know ("Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gray corpse"). He places his final hopes on the possibility that even seemingly straight Alan is in reality a "closet queer," unhappy like the rest of them. In the game and the play, it is Alan's phone call that provides the final shock in a series of shattering revelations.
As illusion after illusion is stripped away during the play's second act, Crowley manages to destroy virtually all popular conceptions of the homosexual personality and existence. If we cannot identify with the play's world of boundless sorrow and lacerating wit, we cannot turn our backs either. As one character say to Alan, "It's like watching an accident on the highway. You can't look at it and you can't look away."
The cast is uniformly brilliant and in some cases superior to the original New York players (who are now in the London production). If there is any actor who stands out in this immensely talented group, it is Bill Moor as Harold, a 32-year-old Jew fairy" with a pock-marked face and a collection of pills he may be saving for an eventual suicide. Moore laces every line and expression with cynical, comic resignation; it is one of the most intense and perfected characterizations I have seen this year.
For the matter, the whole cast has been shaped into an intense, coordinated whole by the director, Robert Moore. Moore has recreated his original staging down to the letter, infusing this production with the same crackling energy that marked the original. As a result, Boys in the Band sends you on an emotional roller-coaster ride full of extra-ordinary dips. While it may be painful and scary at times, it is undeniably thrilling as well.