Bring on the Men!
With the opening of Mart Crowley's The Men From the Boys in San Francisco nearing, Filichia muses on the relevance of the play's precursor, The Boys in the Band.
This is, of course, the sequel to Crowley's smash hit 1968 The Boys in the Band, a play that has taken a lot of hits in recent years. Detractors point to such lines as "You show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse," and "If we could just not hate ourselves so much." Indeed, in the light of 2002, those remarks are regrettable. I'm so glad that the current and recent generations of gays can't relate to them. But take it from an old timer: There was a time when they were all too apt.
Politics aside, The Boys in the Band is a well-made play with a lot more plot than some recent shows that were set at parties. Michael is hosting Harold's 32nd birthday bash, to which he has invited the effeminate Emory and his black buddy Bernard, along with Larry and his current (but not exclusive) lover, Hank, and Michael's own ex-lover, Donald. But also winds up hosting two other people he wasn't expecting. One is Cowboy, whom Emory purchased as a birthday gift for Harold; the other is Alan McCarthy, Michael's old college chum who is straight -- and believes that Michael is, too. Now Alan will see a slice of gay life and a side of Michael that he never anticipated. This drives Michael to insist that his guests to play a parlor game in which they are to phone "the one person that you really loved." What he really wants to do is to out Alan, whom he suspects had an affair with their friend Justin. His efforts lead to a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry.
Boys is also a hilariously funny play. Just for the fun of it, I once went through the script and counted the witty lines. Of course, sense of humor is subjective, but I'd say there are 88 funny quips in the first act and 57 in the second, ranging from "One thing to be said for masturbation; you don't have to look your best" to "Give me librium or give me meth." And after one guest vomits and another covers the bathroom with room deodorant, Michael astutely notes: "Before, it smelled like somebody puked. Now, it smells like somebody puked in a gardenia patch."
Nevertheless, one of my younger friends -- a fellow named Marc, who's one of the smartest people I know -- hates The Boys in the Band. In college, he even protested the film's being shown in a class because of its stereotypical and negative portrayals. Part of me can't disagree. In the play (and the movie), Michael says "the only thing I know about mature is Victor Mature" and admits that he's "spoiled rotten, stupid, empty, boring, selfish, self-centered." Harold calls him "a sad and pathetic man" after branding himself an "ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy." Donald admits that he has a need to fail because that's when his mother loved him most.
That's not good, not good at all. But the main reason why the characters in The Boys in the Band are miserable is because the straight world of old made them that way. If people in the '40s, '50s, and '60s had been tolerant, these guys wouldn't have turned out as they did. I saw The Boys in the Band countless times way back when and, believe me, plenty of men in the audience were weeping openly. It's not the story of today's gays, but it certainly was the story of yesteryear's. How could the 1968 production have set a then-record-high ticket price of $10 (when Broadway plays were still charging $6.90) and run 1,000 performances it if weren't telling a story that resonated and rang true?
I also believe that one reason that Stonewall and Gay Rights happened -- not the only reason, mind you, but one reason -- is because of this play. After gays saw The Boys in the Band, they no longer would settle for thinking of themselves as pathetic and wouldn't be perceived as such any longer. Now that Michael and his friends had brought their feelings out of the closet, this new generation would dare to be different. And, just as some whites' view of blacks changed after seeing A Raisin in the Sun, so too did the outlook of many straights after they caught The Boys in the Band. Some whom I personally know felt terrible and -- I saw this happen! -- actually changed the way they treated gays.
So this is a play to be cherished for what it did. And I hope The Men from the Boys -- a terrific title, by the way -- is cherished as well. I'm told that not all of the characters will be on hand. There's no Cowboy, so I guess his one-nighter with Harold didn't lead to something more permanent. No surprise that there's no Alan, either, for after the way Michael treated him, the friendship had to end. But Michael, Emory, Harold, Larry, Donald, Bernard, and Hank are all on hand -- with Rick, Jason, and Scott presumably adding to the drama.
By the way, I wonder if Emory again will again ask the question he posed in a butch voice to jokingly obfuscate his sexuality when Alan arrived: "D'ya think the Giants'll win the pennant?" The answer this year was a resounding yes. Here's hoping that The Men from the Boys gets an equally resounding yes from San Francisco critics and audiences.