New Plays: The Boys in the Band

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In the theater, as in today's urban society, homosexuals have abandoned discretion and invisibility. For better or worse, homosexuality and the gay-life subculture are becoming acceptable as dramatic themes, to be treated with the same frankness as heterosexual relations. Probably the most overt example of this trend is The Boys in the Band, which opened off-Broadway last week. Neither patronizing nor proselytizing, it coolly takes the milieu of the homosexual for granted. It is also a funny, sad and honest play about a set of mixed-up human beings who happen to be deviates.

The occasion is a birthday party for Harold (Leonard Frey), an event as ominous for a homosexual as for an aging woman with its reminder that good looks can fade and desirability diminish. The party thrower (Kenneth Nelson) is a tormented Roman Catholic, undergoing psychoanalysis, who secretly hates himself and makes anti-homosexual quips in the same way that some Jews tell anti-Semitic jokes. Each of his friends has his own hangup. A Negro known as "the queen of spades" suffers rejection because of his unrequited love for a heterosexual white boy. One couple is undergoing an emotional rift: one partner is faithful while the other is promiscuous. There is also an outrageously effeminate guest (Cliff Gorman) who brings a flamboyant birthday gift—a dumb hustler (Robert La Tourneaux) who looks like a slightly tarnished Greek god and costs $20 for the night.

Beneath the bitchy, lancing wit of the verbal byplay, Playwright Mart Crowley keeps a dead-level eye on the desolating aspects of homosexual life. He records the loveless, brief encounters, the guilt-ridden, blackout reliance on alcohol, the endless courtship rat race of the gay bars with its inevitable quota of rejection, humiliation and loneliness. Crowley underscores the fact that while the homosexual may pose as a bacchanal of nonconformist pagan delights, he frequently drinks a hemlock-bitter cup of despair.

The final act makes that abundantly clear, after the unanticipated arrival of the party thrower's former college roommate. The newcomer, who is sexually "straight," is torn between revulsion and a hypnotized curiosity, and cannot bring himself to leave. A savage game begins, rather too patly adapted from the "Get the Guests" scene in Albee's Virginia Woolf, called "Affairs of the Heart." Each player must say "I love you" over the telephone to the person he has most dearly loved in his life. All drunk by now, the partygoers guzzle this witch's brew of truth, and the party thrower is reduced to agonized hysterics.

Uncompromising in its vision, totally unfettered in its four-lettered speech, The Boys in the Band is a play that may be repellent to some viewers. Yet it also has an unmistakable dramatic intensity, a human and humorous appeal that surmounts the netherworld of its focus. The cast is expert, and the players interact with such flawless skill, grace and timing that they could declare themselves an ensemble company right now and be ranked with the best.