Harold (Eric Roth), now in his 40s, is aging poorly and self-consciously, and being gay doesn't help. At his Upper East Side apartment, Michael (Matt McConkey) hosts Harold's birthday party in Mart Crowley's 1968 off-Broadway play, The Boys in the Band. (That, of course, was made into a film shortly after, and a sharp-looking revival is currently playing at West Hollywood's Coast Playhouse). Imagine a birthday party with eight gay men, lifted from Edward Albee's template in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with vicious party games aimed at dismantling the illusions and delusions of the various participants.
Harold arrives late, in sunglasses and suit, coiffed and manicured like a cross between a Mafia don and a queen, and Roth portrays him with just the right twinge of imperiousness, slightly fey, spouting witticisms that are supposed to be wise but don't always quite land. In the spaces after their launch and before their plunge, you can see his lips tighten and his eyes stare defiantly into the collapse of who he imagines he should be, at this point in his life, at this party. By play's end, he's been mocked for spending hours in front of the looking glass with a pair of tweezers with which he's been gouging his face in order to vanquish telltale signs of aging. This is a play in which a line such as, "Appearances aren't everything" is met with the retort "says Quasimoto," and "Beauty is skin deep" receives sarcastic chortles from the other characters. This is a world where a skin blemish is a life crisis.
Such issues as fidelity, monogamy, alcoholism, drug addiction and innumerable variants of self-loathing manifest themselves in verbal and some physical lashings that are as vicariously entertaining as public executions must have been in eras of yore. Underlying the abundant wit and cynical repartee, blended into a couple of moments of affection, lies the larger metaphysics of mortality, manifested in Harold, on his birthday, with the "present" of a dim-witted prostitute (Dustin Varpness). Harold has obviously reached some destination beyond the possibility of a partnership based on mutual respect and intelligence. At an age when in other cultures he might still be ascending professionally and personally, Harold is alone, over and almost out.
Director Jason Crain's staging comes well-engineered, almost overcoming the impediments of large ensemble dramas that are supposed to unfold realistically. There's the inevitable awkwardness of characters lingering on the margins with nothing to do or say, while histrionics are unfolding in the middle of the room. Then there's the decision to have certain hunks, but not the thin guys, take off their shirts for no apparent reason and recline for a moment or two, bare-chested. Yep, that always happens at birthday parties I attend. The show's rhythms still contain some hiccups — nothing that a few shots of gin and a week or two of performances can't remedy.
But, oh my, there are some good performances here. McConkey's host, slender Michael, combines fierce intelligence with withering wit. As the action grinds them all down, his buoyancy slides into mere bitterness. Chris Sams' "fairy" Emory — vaguely Pee-wee–like — also makes a grand transition from stock limp-wrist flamboyance to a kind-of stoic severity amid the emotional shattered glass in the room. You can see the tight-lipped struggle in Sean Galuszka's burly, soft-spoken Hank, to maintain his dignity while watching his partner, Larry (Greg Siff), cavort with an ex and goad Hank with the boast that he may be a philanderer but he's honest about it, and that Hank must either endure it, in the interest of love, or leave.
And in this way, the world of a culture within a culture is a window into the issues of appearances and addictions and neglect and companionship, which still percolate through society, as never before — or, in ways not felt so intensely in a very long time, as social safety nets and communities themselves become torn and left to drift. Because at its core, with its blend of cruelty and camaraderie, this is a play about the intersection of abandon and abandonment.
Among the visitors is a forlorn "straight" guy named Alan (a solid O.C. — would that be Long Island? — portrayal by David Stanbra). From his plight, and that of Hank's, one derives the view that everybody in the world is a gay man, and if they're not, they just don't know it yet.
The plight of aging Harold's mortality is mirrored across town in the depiction of an entirely different subculture — the corporate world — in Don Ponturo's new play, Survival Exercise, at Hollywood's Elephant Space. Ponturo's Harold is named Mason (Mark Sande) — an exec too expensive to be kept around. Now that he's been unceremoniously dumped, can he drag his younger colleagues with him to a new enterprise? Is that really betrayal of a system that has betrayed him, and will inevitably betray his survivors? Or is betrayal now the expectation, and therefore not betrayal, according to a much-revised social contract?
Keep in mind, the project worked on by the quartet is a "talking house" — which Mason thinks is so lame an idea, he presumes it's a corporate-engineered setup, and is trying to fob off the sales presentation of this concept onto neurotic, young Andrew (Michael Sweeney), who knows perfectly well what's going down, and is himself trying to wheedle out of the pitch that's supposed to begin in mere moments.
The "talking house" is a computerized in-home instruction system based, I think, on some kind of GPS technology, though the details are deliberately muddy, because they're not really the play's point, which is the lack of details, the lack of guidance, the lack of rules, the lack of having any sense of bearing on what one is supposed to do in the unspecified corporation, what the rules are, and what the consequences are for obeying or disobeying them. The only consistent aspect of their lives is jargon. In other words, it's purgatory, and Ponturo's play has some striking resemblances to Sartre's No Exit. In some ways, it's better, because it doesn't bog down in cumbersome psychology. It's all about souls struggling to make sense of a reality that can't be known.
The remaining souls include Sharon (Cheryl Bricker) — aging and gunning to replace Mason; and young Susan (Michelle Murphy).
Director Duane Daniels' set consists of four steel chairs; the sexual alliances and betrayals unfold in a conference room and a meeting room in a hotel. Daniels stages a raw production that's a bit dull around the edges, but by Act 2, as the realization sinks in that we're really in no-man's-land, the cleverness of the concept and the scope of the metaphysics provide their own kind of heat, like the effect of a blanket that slowly enshrouds the room.
Like Harold, guys such as Mason need to have plastic surgery and injections to survive.
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It's all so gay.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND | By MART CROWLEY | Presented by MIGHTY MYT PRODUCTIONS and HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE at the COAST PLAYHOUSE, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood | Through May 16 | (323) 965-9996
SURVIVAL EXERCISE | By DON PONTURO | ELEPHANT SPACE THEATRE, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through May 2 | (323) 960-7776