Before “Angels in America,” there was “The Boys in the Band.” Mart Crowley’s landmark 1968 Off-Broadway play (and its 1970 film adaptation), about a group of sometimes campy, often bickering gay men at a birthday party in pre-Stonewall New York City, toggled between viciously funny and just plain vicious.
“The Boys in the Band” shined a sometimes harsh light on what was just beginning to be called gay culture, in which many of the mainstream’s prejudices against homosexuals still flourished among gay men themselves. In the pressure cooker of discrimination and society’s contempt, gay sexual freedom and sass often masked hatred and self-hatred.
It’s tempting, in the current post-”Will & Grace” era, to think that the issues examined in “Boys” — including racism, alcoholism, backbiting, infidelity and, in particular, what has come to be known as internalized homophobia — are largely things of the past.
But ActOut Theatre’s production of the play, opening July 19 at Lexington’s Downtown Arts Center — using the lightly revised script of the 2018 Broadway production, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play last month — argues that while much has changed for the better in the LGBTQ community since 1968, “The Boys in the Band” is still plenty relevant.
“ActOut likes to do theater that challenges and educates as well as entertains, and this piece does all of those things,” director Marcus Roland said. “It gives perspective to the gay experience. It goes to another time, of course . . . (but) it brings us forward. We get to look back and see what was happening then and still appreciate some of the things we deal with now, that are in this play: racism, homophobia, self-loathing. All of those things still plague us in some respect, but have improved over time.”
The play’s characters include Harold, for whom the party is being thrown, depressed about aging; his trouble-making frenemy Michael; Donald, Michael’s conflicted partner; Bernard, their African-American friend; Emory, a flamboyant interior decorator; Larry, a prolifically sexual fashion photographer; and Hank, his boyfriend, who was previously in a heterosexual relationship. There are also Cowboy, a buff gay hustler, and Alan, an old friend of Michael’s who shows up uninvited.
(The Broadway revival, featuring an all-gay cast that included Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto, is being adapted for the big screen by producer Ryan Murphy, with the movie expected to be released next year on Netflix.)
At a rehearsal this week, the ActOut cast pondered the ways in which “The Boys in the Band” is at once a period piece, a cautionary tale and a still-somewhat-accurate reflection of gay life in some parts of the here and now. In less socially liberal areas, they said, LBGTQ people still face oppression and its soul-distorting effects, while the Trump administration’s campaign against transgender rights suggests that the political gains of the past could be reversed.
“With every rise, there’s also a fall,” says Garret Gabriel, who plays Donald. “We’re in a time when LGBTQ rights are being challenged, and we’re at a place where we either stand together, like they did in the 1980s and ’90s, or we can be catty and bitchy and become our own abusers. I would argue that this is a very timely piece, in that it shows us what the options are — whether it be to drink or not to drink, whether to be nasty to each other and say the N word, or not to.”
When “Boys” was first produced, “It challenged people to be more than what they are, be more than what they think they are,” Gabriel says. “And I hope people now will come to the show and see that they can be more than they think they are.”
“It’s a good educational moment for our audience,” Roland says, “to see where we’ve come from.”
If you go: “The Boys in the Band” by ActOut Theatre
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St., Lexington
When: 8 p.m. July 19-20 and 26-27; 2 p.m. July 28
Tickets: $20 at https://bit.ly/2X8jbt9