To bear witness to a groundbreaking artistic moment is a powerful and much-sought after experience. Though we cannot return to April 14, 1968, when Mart Cromley’s The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway and stunned audiences with its nuanced representation of gay life, Windy City Playhouse’s rendition is the next best thing. Under the direction of Carl Menninger, the company offers Chicagoans a one-of-a-kind opportunity to be transported into this seminal play. The Boys in the Band is an emotionally intense experience that reminds us of a period not so long ago when the lives of queer individuals were remarkably different.
Cromley’s work begins as our host Michael (Jackson Evans) prepares for his former lover Harold’s (Sam Bell Gurwitz) 32nd birthday gathering. Soon after his first guests, openly gay mutual friends who make up the title’s ‘band,’ arrive, Michael receives a troubling call: his college roommate Alan (Christian Edwin Cook), a heterosexual, married man, will be stopping by for an undisclosed but seemingly urgent reason. The introduction of this outsider, uniquely a minority within this subculture of gay men, exposes the ‘band’s’ vulnerabilities, and the party quickly turns from light-hearted games to intense introspections on love and self-loathing.
The play’s power is inherent, and Windy City has large shoes to fill. The company rises to the task with its now signature immersive approach, beginning the experience before the audience even enters the main space; William Bole’s set design takes you up the elevator and down the impeccably decorated hallway of Michael’s building before seating you inside his apartment. Though the immersion isn’t quite as successful as past Windy City productions--the audience is invited to move around, for example, but there’s little motivation to do so on a singular set with all characters in view--being at the center of the action elevates the play’s emotional intensity. And every element in the design, from the volume of the record player (sound design by Sarah D. Espinoza) to the view outside Michael’s windows, is so expertly executed that it’s easy to forget you’re on a set.
Less successful is the play’s general cadence, which heightens moments near the play’s beginning to an extent that it renders the climax less effective. For instance, the character Michael's Catholic background and struggle with alcoholism create a potent cocktail of self-loathing and instability, but Evans leans too heavily into this erraticism early in the play, and his character’s unraveling diminishes in impact.
Together, though, the talented ensemble delivers some fantastic performances with several standouts. Cook's quiet observations and subtle displays of emotion exemplify Alan's contrasting position within the group as someone wholly unable to accept himself. In their respective monologues, Denzel Tsopnang (Bernard) and William Marquez (Emory) are equally gripping as two ‘others’ marginalized within their own community
The Boys in the Band utterly immerses us into a world that, in some respects, stands in stark contrast to our own. But part of the play’s power stems too from the fact that we still have so much ground to break. Windy City Playhouse’s production compels us to think back and look forward. Listen up, Mary: this is a play worth seeing. (Emily Schmidt)
The Boys in the Band continues at Windy City Playhouse through April 19. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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