Jonathan Hammond and Nick Westrate
in The Boys in the Band
(© Carol Rosegg)
Jonathan Hammond and Nick Westrate
in The Boys in the Band
(© Carol Rosegg)
At 43 years old, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, now being presented by Transport Group in a loft on West 26th Street, is looking pretty smart and proving terrifically affecting for its age, thanks to the genuinely sensitive site-specific staging by director Jack Cummings III and his talented cast.

Set in the late 1960s -- just before the Stonewall riots forever changed gay history -- the play unfolds in the intimate confines of a Chelsea penthouse apartment (appointed with a keen eye for detail by Sandra Goldmark) where Michael (a mercurial Jonathan Hammond) is hosting a birthday party for his friend Harold (played with a curious sort of somnambulant spookiness by Jon Levenson).

Theatergoers sit on two rows of chairs that surround the action and watch as Michael gathers a group of their friends for the celebration. Michael also finds himself playing host to one unexpected guest, his old college chum Alan (Kevin Isola), who's the one straight guy among a bunch of gay men. As the evening progresses, and Michael falls off the wagon, he becomes enraged -- with Alan -- and suggests that the men play a game that is by turns revealing and cruel, filled with heartfelt emotion.

Many of the types of men found in Crowley's groundbreaking play are awfully familiar, from the sexually voracious Larry (played with seductive charm by Christopher Innvar), who is partnered to school teacher Hank (Graham Rowat) and who's incapable of being faithful, to the swishy Emory (John Wellmann), who manages to have a fun-filled quip for just about any awkward moment. There's even a vapid hustler (rendered with ease and a sure sense of comic timing by Aaron Sharff) on hand.

Yet despite the sense that these characters have been encountered before, there's a freshness to them thanks to remarkably honest performances. Wellmann reveals with precision the feistiness and even intelligence that lies underneath Emory's flighty veneer. Rowat communicates not only Hank's fervent love for Larry, but also some lingering discomfort with being out, having left his wife and kids for him. It's fascinating to watch as Hank bonds with Alan, not only because he uses the newly struck friendship to fuel his philandering lover's own jealousy, but also because it shows how easily he can "pass" as straight.

Similarly, Kevyn Morrow imbues Bernard -- the lone person of color in the group -- with solidness and good nature, which crumbles heartbreakingly during the course of the party, and Nick Westrate fills his performance as Michael's best friend Donald with some cunning and telling detail.

Terrifically conceived performances also come from Hammond, Innvar and Isola, and each of these actors bring their characters to life vividly, and have moments of unquestionable power and intensity. Unfortunately, their work isn't able to completely mask some of the less convincing, melodramatic moments in Crowley's play, which are keenly felt in the close confines of the performance space.

The demands of working within an actual apartment are met beautifully by costume designer Kathryn Rohe, whose work captures not only the period of the piece, but also, in its small details, speaks volumes about the men wearing them. Similarly, lighting designer Dane Laffrey creates some marvelously dramatic effects, using just incidental table and floor lamp in the intimate setting, where this landmark play springs to life grandly.