Anyone hoping that the sub-genre is losing steam might not be immediately cheered at the news that Frank Stancati's Just Us Boys is set in a dressing room where gay men do, indeed, let their hair down and two of them lunge at each other in a hissy-fit over a man they're sharing. Neither will hearts lift at the further info that, of the five men sharing this many-mirrored space, there is one gabby queen reminiscent of The Boys in the Band's Emory, one gold-digger, and one conscientious dance captain earnestly trying to find love in a world full of lust. Also on hand is a dancing fool who's uncertain of his sexuality and decides he's going to try the same-sex thing with the lovelorn dance captain but eventually comes to believe that...well, to go on with the synopsis would reveal too much. On the other hand, anyone who's ever seen a play will have figured out what's going to happen in this one long before intermission. Incidentally, the waffling chap is a "swing." Get it? (For anyone reading this who's unfamiliar with the job, a swing understudies every part in a chorus and has to be ready to replace any missing performer at a moment's notice.) Furthermore, the lad isn't very good at swinging--pun intended by the playwright, not this reviewer.
Nevertheless, there is a big "nevertheless" in Stancati's depiction of the real-life soap opera that these vivacious guys live. The playwright served some time in chorus lines himself, and there is the impression that he may be relating behind-the-scenes war stories here. Just Us Boys is immodestly billed as "a wildly funny play," but what matters most is that the mentalities of the chorus kids Stancati champions (or is that Gower-champions?) aren't so low that one must look under the dressing room tables to find them. The boys, first seen during the rehearsal period and then as they run for months in a show called Depression: The Musical, are not just dirt dishers; they're men who can call up more than a modicum of wit and dig into more than a few inches worth of feelings when they need to. As the play unfolds, they say a number of amusing things to one another and reveal vulnerabilities that aren't simply bathetic.
For instance, dance captain Anthony Torrelli (Davis Kirby) is sympathetic to the very gay-married Peter LaFontaine (Joe Gulla) when Peter suddenly learns that his marriage may be on the rocks. That sympathy is reciprocated when swing Mike Lambert (Justin Greer) starts to give Anthony a hard time romantically and Peter's there with a sturdy shoulder. Sleep-around Joey Evans (Jeffrey Todd) stops being a cartoon when he realizes that he may have caused some genuine pain to Peter. And Sam McDonough (Ludis Schnore), who is straight and dating Depression's leading lady, is a gentleman about his love life and affably tolerant of his gay colleagues' foibles. Furthermore, Stancati does come up with one refreshing, unexpected development: Mike is far from adept as a swing, even though he does practice moves when the others are on stage.
Stancati also lays in a credible time frame. With a line here and a line there, he covers months in the life of a show that opens to dreadful reviews and yet hangs on, eventually being nominated for many Tonys and then winning a handful of them, including one for the talented leading lady. (No, Virginia; Stancati is not spilling the beans on Thoroughly Modern Millie.) The playwright hands several laugh lines to Ray (Gerard Gravallese), the stage manager who's never seen but is heard plenty. Although snippets of the Depression score are heard (the Jerry Herman-esque music is by Doug Katsaros), no full number is staged for the audience. And that's a shame. After all, if the Boys in the Band can do a line dance, these gypsies ought to be able to give the crowd more than a few chaîné turns and leg lifts.
Director Thomas Morrissey keeps the chorus line moving fleetly about Russell M. Schramm impressionistic dressing room. Lit by Aaron Spivey's lights and clad in Robin I. Shane's costumes--Depression: The Musical calls for Urinetown-like caps, baggy trousers, and suspenders--the men are frequently glimpsed doing push-ups and plies. And they are often seen dressing and undressing. The acting by all of them is slick and inviting, and it would be difficult to pick one performer as any better than the next. Their physiques are also pretty much outstanding. (Schnore has the most chiseled chest; isn't it lucky for gawkers that, whenever he strips, he faces downstage? Clearly, Morrissey knows what the paying customers want, and why at least some of them are there.)
Maybe Just Us Boys will help in some small way to change "chorus boy mentality" into something of a compliment. If this is one of Stancati's goals, he's not the only one working towards it: Chorus kid/comic John Flynn recently decided that he wanted to be more than a "small-minded, bitchy, theater faggot" and put together a cabaret entertainment called Dances With Pitchforks: Confessions of a Farmboy, in which he recounts his experiences while appearing with Betty Buckley and Deborah Gibson in the 1998 Paper Mill production of Gypsy. It's a show that only a savvy, if still somewhat bitchy, man could have written.
So, chorus boys of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your compromised reputations.