Boys in the Band
By Mart Crowley
Opening night, buy one, get one free
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin St.
By GWEN OREL
“Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 drama set at a gay man’s 40th birthday party, feels both period and contemporary.
The way the gay men call one another “she,” and speculate about what damage their overprotective mothers might have caused them, feels dated.
But on the other hand, the way a straight man in the mix changes the mood of a party of gay men does not, says director E. Dale Smith-Gallo, who directs the play for Studio Players. The show opens on June 14. His husband, Michael Smith-Gallo, plays the leading role of Michael, at whose house the party for Harold takes place.
That’s a sentence you couldn’t have written 50 years ago.
Last year, for the play’s 50th anniversary, Joe Mantello directed a starry revival featuring Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto.
Smith-Gallo wanted to present the play for “50 Years of Pride,” during Pride Month. The Stonewall Riots, a spontaneous uprising in reaction to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, took place in June 1969, and the Pride movement began right after.
“This play was the first unapologetically gay play in America,” said Smith-Gallo. The play is controversial among the gay community because it shows so much anger, he said, and many of the characters have so much self-loathing. “Especially through a modern lens, it’s a difficult play to watch. But when you watch it through the lens of being pre-Stonewall, [Crowley] is just making an argument of, look what this absolute oppression was doing to these people who had built up humor that they use as a shield,” Smith-Gallo said.
Michael Smith-Gallo has seen the 1970 movie, and finds it relevant. Though being homosexual is no longer illegal, coming out is hard. “It’s almost by definition a tragic journey,” he said. He remembers feeling temporary despair in college, and from that, can extrapolate to how the character Michael has felt for 20 years, he said.
In the play, the character Michael talks about having gay sex in college when he was still at the I-was-so-drunk-last-night stage, pretending he didn’t really remember what happened.
Montclair’s Bill Barry (who appeared last year in “Appropriate” at Studio Playhouse) plays Alan, a straight man (or is he?) who comes unexpectedly to the party.
“The way most men, gay or straight, express affection for their friends is with insults,” Barry said. But Alan says particularly awful things, and not with affection. “On paper, Alan is not a particularly likable person,” Barry said. Having to say offensive things makes him uncomfortable, but then he asks himself why Alan says these things, what he is afraid of, which offers him the opportunity to go deep into his character.
“In the internet culture that we have, where people can express horrible opinions through
comments, at least in this play, characters are doing it face to face,” he said.
The play shines a light on how far we’ve come, and how far we haven’t come, he added.
In an interview with Dominick Dunne, Crowley, now 83, said the play’s title comes from a line in “A Star Is Born,” in which James Mason tells Judy Garland, “You’re singing for yourself and the boys in the band.”
For Smith-Gallo, the title reflects the sense of community, even with LGBTQ people today. “When you put us in a safe gay space, there is a different vibe that happens,” he said. In the play, Alan’s entrance changes the room. Pre-Stonewall, gay men were like a band of brothers, who knew one another’s secrets, and would stay together. And that, he said, offered at the time, and offers even today, an undercurrent of hope. The characters have “the strength to state their truth, no matter what it costs them.”