MANSFIELD — The Mass. Music & Arts Society is staging a poignant and timely production of “The Boys In The Band,” a play takes a hard look at the lives of gay men through comedy and pathos.
The play premiered off-Broadway in 1968 just prior to the Stonewall riots, which served to catalyze the gay rights movement.
It was revived on Broadway in 2018 on the 50th anniversary of its first staging.
The timing of the MMAS production is appropriate, as many in the gay community reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the country celebrates Pride Month.
And as I wrote this review, the Broadway production won the 2019 Tony award for best revival of a play.
“Boys” takes a hard look of what it was like to be gay 50 years ago — the stigmatization gay people endured and the despondency they felt. Limited to the bars, the baths and the safety of their apartments, they tried to attain some normalcy in a world that did not accept them.
The material is raw and at times cruel.
Daniel Kozar directs the MMAS production and does a fine job trying to shape the play around the characters without stereotypical caricatures. However, some caricature still comes through as the actors interact with each other, but in a humorous way.
The play revolves around a group of gay men at a birthday party in New York City in the spring of 1969. The host, Michael, an alcoholic, is the catalyst for most of the drama, particularly in Act II.
Greg Smith is fabulous as this complex individual who is struggling with his identity and religious upbringing. That struggle leads him to become absolutely cruel by the second act after having a few drinks.
Michael’s conflicted boyfriend, Donald, is also struggling with his lifestyle choice and is undergoing psychoanalysis. He only comes to New York on the weekends and tries to spurn his homosexual lifestyle by hiding in books or in the Hamptons.
Malachi Mulrine Peters, making his MMAS debut, does a nice job of staying appropriately aloof as the drama unfolds but shows compassion when needed.
As the other characters show up to await the birthday boy’s arrival, Michael gets a call from an old college roommate and wants the men to tone down the fact they are gay.
The one character in all this who seems truly accepting of himself is Emory, portrayed exquisitely by John K. McElroy II. Making his MMAS debut, McElroy fully embodies the character, a flamboyant and effeminate interior designer, and delivers the most humor.
Other characters include Harold, who is Jewish, and Bernard, who is black. They are not only dealing with the stigma of being gay but also with issues of race and ethnicity.
Harold, the birthday boy, is feeling morose about aging and fearful he will no longer be able to attract young men.
Christopher Crossen-Sills’ portrayal of Harold is spot-on. An MMAS alum, he also has some fine scenes with Smith, his “frenemy.”
Ibrhima Tylar Jahumpa portrays the quiet and humble Bernard, who puts up with Emory’s bigotry toward him, realizing it is not meant to be taken seriously.
Larry and Hank are a couple and it is clear that there is some disagreement between the two.
Hank was married and seems more straight than the others, but the emotions are genuine as portrayed by Ricky DeSisto.
Larry is a flirt and prefers multiple partners, and Bryant Vasquez, also making his MMAS debut, plays him well as he flirts with Donald.
There is some humor as the characters await Michael’s friend Alan, who has something he needs to talk with Michael about. We are not sure about Alan’s sexual orientation, but there is some homophobic drama that ensues when he arrives. Gary J. Mlinac does a nice job of being ambiguous.
The second act takes a nasty turn as the men continue to drink and Michael insists on playing a game that is hurtful and mean. It will unravel and reveal things about each character, and at times the drama is uncomfortable and disturbing to watch.
Kudos also to Ted Talanian for a scrumptious set design.
Sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone, and this groundbreaking play may shed some light on how far the gay rights movement has come, but it also may make you wonder if we are taking a few steps back.