The Windy City Playhouse's artistic staff couldn't believe their luck when they got permission to produce The Boys in the Band.
"We applied for the rights, thinking that we weren't going to get them," said Windy City Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Carl Menninger.
Mart Crowley's groundbreaking 1968 drama about a group of gay friends celebrating a contentious birthday party has been off limits lately. That's due to the Ryan Murphy-produced 50th-anniversary Broadway production that went on to win the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
And then there's Murphy's Netflix adaptation due out later this year. Like the 1970 movie version that featured the original 1968 off-Broadway cast, the forthcoming film features the acclaimed 2018 revival cast, which has gay stars like Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells and more.
So the Windy City Playhouse pounced when the rights to do The Boys in the Band became available. This professional Chicago company, famed for "immersive" productions like Southern Gothic and Noises Off, wanted the chance to put their own stamp on Crowley's classic gay drama.
"It's one of my favorite plays," Menninger said. "We want to give the audience an experience that they might not have had in a traditional theater environment."
This time around, audiences are not separated from Crowley's partying characters by a traditional proscenium setup. Instead, Windy City Playhouse allows an audience of 40 at each show to be fly-on-the-wall ( actually cushioned benches ) observers within the swinging 1960s apartment of Michael, The Boys in the Band's troubled leading man. Each ticket also includes two cocktails, so audiences can grow as tipsy as Michael's party guests.
"I've been very interested in how we can specifically show that this is 1968, and convincing the audience that they've stepped back in time," said scenic designer William Boles, who agrees with director Menninger that The Boys in the Band needs to be a period piece.
Boles jokingly laments that since queer history isn't often taught in schools, he often learns it when he's hired to design historical gay plays like Angels in America or The Boys in the Band. In doing his research, Boles took his main inspiration from British interior designer David Hicks.
"It was so fun to design," said Boles during a recent walk-through of the set, pointing out bold Hicks patterns on walls and the ceiling, and other period details like a lesser-known Andy Warhol portrait.
"We latched onto the fact that Michael is living well beyond his means and he talks about it a lot," Menninger said. "From my point of view, he took all of his money from a film script sale and blew it on this apartment."
Like the production's period decor, The Boys in the Band also comes with a long-standing stigma of pre-Stonewall attitudes. Throughout the years, many LGBTQ activists have criticized the play for its portrayal of gay people as "self-loathing."
"When you see it on the page, when you see the film, it is angry, it is hostile, and there's a lot of discord in it," Menninger said. "But I think we try to end the play in a place of hope."
Menninger and his acting company's approach to The Boys in the Band is that Michael's apartment starts out as a celebratory safe space. But things change when Michael's heterosexually married friend, Alan, becomes an intruder.
"That call from Alan is very triggering for Michael," Boles said. "Otherwise there's a lot of love that's there in that community keeping them together, especially in 1968 being gay within those safe spaces."
"You can recognize a lot contemporary queer life in this situation," said Menninger, noting that Crowley tackles issues like open relationships, substance abuse and more in The Boys in the Band.
"And there's that line that Michael says, 'If we could just not hate ourselves so much,' which is completely relevant," Boles said.
"The actors are so passionate and hungry. They invest so much time and energy outside of rehearsals and ask so many questions to understanding the period of 1968 and the context that we have placed it in," said Menninger about his cast. "What we are attempting to do is show the relevance of this."
The regular-run schedule for Windy City Playhouse's The Boys in the Band is 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1:30 and 6 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets are currently on sale through April 19. Tickets are $75-$95, which includes two cocktails. There is also a special performance to benefit Lambda Legal with a post-show discussion with famed photographer and gay activist Tom Bianchi at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13. Benefit tickets are $150.
For more information, call 773-891-8985 or visit WindyCityPlayhouse.com .