Boys Will Be Boys

The worst birthday party ever—almost 40 years later

The Boys in the Band
Starting Gate Productions
at the Mounds Theatre
651.645.3503

Pippi Longstocking
at Children's Theatre Company
612.874.0400

 

When Mart Crowley wrote The Boys in the Band in 1968, the Stonewall Rebellion was a year away, Rock Hudson was onscreen sweeping the ladies off their feet, and poor luckless Liberace still hadn't met the right girl. Times have indeed changed—if not to the degree that one might have hoped—and as a result, this comedic drama might seem to be a curio.

The action takes place over the course of a single night in the Manhattan apartment of Michael (Mark L. Mattison), where a birthday party is being held for Harold (Matthew Vire). Michael, we learn, is fanning the embers of a grandiose personality and money troubles. Soon lover Donald (Clarence Wethern) notices that Michael is laying off the sauce for the night, and entertains hope that the evening might pass without Michael turning into the surly drunk who tends to emerge on such occasions.

Of course these hopes are dashed, and Mattison taps into a universal wellspring of boozy creepiness as the evening progresses. The guests who eventually arrive might seem familiar now as gay stereotypes: the camp Emory (Andrew Fafoutakis, with little inhibition), the straight-looking divorcé Hank (Michael Jurenek), the sexual hedonist Larry (Derek Miller). Yet director K. Jason Bryan's cast manages to find the individuals inside these cut-out forms.

Once Michael is well and firmly in the grip of demon alcohol, he invents a game complete with a scoring system, in which he browbeats his buddies into calling someone from their life and proclaiming their true love—thus neatly combining the worst of both cold-call telemarketing and drunk dialing. Birthday boy Harold recognizes this for the horrendous idea it is, but by then he's engaged in rancorous repartee with Michael and can't stop the tide of yuckiness.

Mattison pulls off his role as the focal point of the show, cruelly dispatching personality-shattering mind-bombs to all his closest friends before collapsing into a heap of undiluted self-loathing. He oversees the ruin of Bernard (William Grier, with steeliness beneath surface sweetness), the breakdown of mystery guest and college buddy Alan (Scot Moore), and the degradation of Emory with equal enthusiasm. And then a realization sets in: This is what it's like for these guys all the time.

Boys in the Band—then and now—is about self-hate, and all the humiliation and self-destruction that it entails. By the time all the guests scatter into the night, old wounds have been opened and fresh ones salted. This show, while not capturing every facet of Crowley's complicated and layered verbiage, nails the bitter heart beneath it.

 

The musical Pippi Longstocking is a big, sprawling thing, with a disarming score by Roberta Carlson and Thomas W. Olson. As Pippi, a semi-orphan turned loose in the world, Jessie Shelton turns in a mannered performance that teases out a fairly heady idea: that Pippi is a symbolic projection of the parentless self every child wishes to become (while quaking in dread over the very notion).

Heavy interpretations aside, the show, as directed by Matthew Howe, is effortlessly enjoyable from start to finish, and laced through with genuinely funny antics. (Reed Sigmund and Douglas Neithercott grab a greedy share of the laughs in dual cops and robbers roles.) And though my five-year-old was hedging about it afterward, one scene moved him to tears. Don't sweat it, I told him, being broken down by a piece of art is one of the most sublime things that will ever happen to you—and it gets harder to come by as the years pile up.

 
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