How the hell did South Florida's most troubled theater land Michael Leeds? Usually, the only time Tony nominees visit South Florida in any official capacity is to host the Carbonell Awards. Somehow, Leeds, the Tony-nominated director and composer of Swinging on a Star, has found himself directing at the nonequity Rising Action Theatre Company: a gossiped-about, critically maligned, underfunded little theater that has yet to assemble a single uniformly competent cast, even for a small show. There, Leeds has directed a very large show: Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, an uncommonly demanding ensemble piece about gay men in New York in the pre-Stonewall '60s. He almost pulled it off.
And if he had! My goodness, there is almost no play that Rising Action's primarily gay demo more desperately needs to see. The play is a lingual labyrinth of loathing and psychic trauma, bravely stared down or drunk away. Its characters, reared in a culture that could neither understand nor tolerate them, are pictured midway through their battles for self-worth. Their weapons are wit and pluck, which they wield with great vigor. But they are losing. They have internalized something of the hatred others feel for them, and on certain, drunken nights — and nearly all nights are drunken nights — the darkness comes out, and they hurt one another awfully.
The Boys in the Band is set on the occasion of Harold's 30th birthday, yet Harold is the last of the play's characters to appear onstage. The first act, which closes with his appearance, is devoted to the arrival and chattering of his party guests. His party is to be held at the home of Michael (Andy Lehman), a man wrestling, with mixed success, with a drinking problem and existential ennui, the latter the result of a guilty Catholic upbringing. The play begins with Michael flouncing about the house in a terry-cloth robe, lip-synching to some old gay music that this young gay critic couldn't identify. (It was the only part of the play that struck me as inauthentic. If gay men tend to flounce in the aggregate, must the theater show them flouncing so generically as individuals? Must this particular fairy be so predictable?) Soon, he is joined by Donald (Nigel Revenge), an acerbic old dame whose particular flavor of self-loathing has driven him to the 'burbs to escape the grinding sameness of the tippling/tricking/bitching gay life. Donald is very early to the party, and so the pair get some much-needed exposition out of the way as we await the arrival of the campy Emory (Christopher Michaels); his token black friend, Bernard (Johnnie Bowls); the straight-acting, monogamy-loving Hank (Angel Perez) and his partner, the slutty Larry (Manuel Uriza, who looks like a Latinate version of Willem Dafoe); a rented gay cowboy (Brandon St. John); and a square het named Alan (Alan Saban).
Alan — in this production, the only completely unconvincing character — was our host's old college roommate. He has called the apartment bawling his eyes out: He simply needs to see Michael. We suspect there is trouble with the wifey. This being 1968, Alan is quite unprepared for the gay milieu awaiting him when he knocks on his old roomie's door. And even if he had been prepared for the milieu, he likely would not have been prepared for the hostility with which he is greeted by its inhabitants — particularly Emory, who, in Alan, sees an incursion of the straight world that has tormented him into his lavender sanctuary. As the night wends on, the men become drunker, their barbs become sharper, and they turn on one another. The play ends with a question: "Must we hate ourselves so much?" Four decades later, we know that the answer is "no," but we do sometimes forget.
With the exception of the hapless Saban, every one of the actors on Rising Action's stage is competent, and most have at least a moment of brilliance. For a few, the brilliant moment lasts all night. Michaels' effeminate Emory is the gay-man-as-fireball, a screaming comet of wicked glee. I would be perfectly pleased to never hear another gay man call his fellows "Mary" so long as I live, but the way Michaels does it makes me want to join a sorority. Less obvious is Bowls, whose Bernard, if the most static character in the room, is also the most thoughtful. Bowls is an actor who listens intently to his fellows onstage and responds to their peculiarities in real time, thinking through each word as we watch. He's quietly mesmerizing. As Donald, Revenge has one of the most deadly deadpans you'll ever see — filled, variously, with turmoil, mirth, indulgence, forgiveness, and brittle anger, all reduced to a flat feline stare. And Rising Action stalwart St. John, as the stone-stupid cowboy, once again parlays his deadly dearth of dramatic ability into improbable enjoyability. He is like a one-man John Waters flick.
The night does tend to fall apart in the second act, as the boys turn predatory. It's largely the fault of Lehman, who in the first act nailed the rhythms of natural conversation so adroitly. He gets mean when he drinks, and in the second act, as he begins to tipple, the conversion occurs with Jekyllian rapidity, obscuring, for half an hour or so, the human heart that made these boys worth saving.