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THEATER REVIEW The Boys in the Band
by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Mart Crowley

At: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Tickets: Price: $75-95. Runs through: April 19

In Windy City Playhouse's immersive interpretation of Mart Crowley's iconic The Boys in the Band, directed by Carl Menninger, the audience is invited directly into a party thrown by Michael ( Jackson Evans ) to celebrate the birthday of one of his frenemies, Harold ( Sam Bell-Gurwitz ).

William Boles' set, featuring red walls, a sunken living room, and ceiling and wall coverings, so clearly says "'60s" that, sitting on benches around the room, we seem utterly out of place. As the party rolls on and the room fills with gay men, we watch Michael become increasingly drunk and caustic while relationships dissolve before our eyes, our fly-on-the-wall proximity magnifying the experience of lives being altered dramatically.

Evans, outstanding in the central role, sets up his eventual breakdown by showing small hints of internalized anger in flashes at the start as he converses with his boyfriend, Donald ( Jordan Dell Harris ). Bell-Gurwitz's Harold is trapped within himself in a different way: he has built walls around himself so that very little can really affect him, leaving him almost an outside observer at this party in his honor.

Unlike Michael and Donald, Harold is both completely open and comfortable with his sexuality. It is reflected in the way he dresses, talks, and moves, though nowhere near the extreme of Emory ( William Marquez, happily chewing up the scenery from the moment he enters ). Emory's affect is so effeminate that, when Michael's old college roommate Alan ( Christian Edward Cook ) arrives unexpectedly, it takes no time at all before Emory's very presence makes the conservative extremely uncomfortable.

While the first half of Boys is laugh-out-loud funny, its second part, revolving around a "party game" that the bitter Michael makes everyone play, is dark. The game is designed to reveal everyone's secrets and clearly intended to result in married-with-children Alan exiting the closet the host is sure he inhabits while leading everyone present through some powerful and painful moments. Bernard actually breaks down after his turn, underscoring just how frightening this game would be for these 1960s men, and almost no one comes through it unscathed.

It seems almost quaint, in a way, to watch a period piece about gay men that exists in a pre-AIDS world still full of bathhouses and partner-hopping. Knowing what the future holds certainly affects how we feel as we watch this play full of the normal issues of interpersonal relationships—the ones that don't involve premature, wasteful death. But as Menninger immerses us into the party—eat the snacks! drink what the characters do!—Crowley's play comes alive in ways it probably never has before. Seeing Alan's effete form almost at all times—he goes offstage a lot in the proscenium version—is a constant reminder of his intrusive presence here, and seeing Larry and Hank tenderly making love in the upstairs bedroom is so much more perfect than when that room is out of sight. It's a brilliant, powerful staging that amplifies every experience in this highly emotional play, and another engaging production from this unique and original theater.

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