Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, a breakthrough drama first performed in 1968, is dated in some ways but still packs a punchy--and universal--message. The play has very definite problems, but a strong production now at the Theatre on Broadway underscores its best features.

The show takes place in Michael's apartment. Michael's friend and sometime lover, Donald, arrives to shower and shave after a long day's work, while Michael readies the place for a birthday party for his friend Harold.

As the apartment fills up with Michael's friends, we realize what an eclectic group they are. Everybody but the buttoned-down Hank is totally up-front about his homosexuality. But each of the party guests seems somewhat tortured, too. The banter among the "boys" is witty, knowing and culture-specific. But it's also catty--everyone calls everyone else on everything he says--and it's mind-boggling, because there is so much self-hatred (remember, the play is 27 years old). So while we laugh at the repartee, the laughter has an edgy, painful quality that subsides into an uneasy quiet.

Before the guest of honor arrives, Michael's heterosexual friend Alan shows up, distraught. The other guys have been warned to act straight, but the glamorous Emory can't contain himself. Alan punches Emory, and then Michael loses it; this direct confrontation with gay-bashing is too much for him, and years of rage seep up through his defenses.

The second act is all about Michael acting out that rage. When Michael makes up a vicious party game, the others are drawn in, and they're all devastated by it--everyone, that is, but Alan, who leaves thanking Michael.

Michael's nasty attack has a very different effect than he intended. Birthday boy Harold sees through Michael like no one else, holds a mirror up to him and shows him his own unhappiness. It's a grueling, brilliant moment.

Each performance in this production has its strengths. Paul Page as Michael superbly conveys the character's conflicting emotions and intense self-loathing. The man Michael wants to be struggles with the man he is, and the conflict is very, very bloody. Page seethes, smolders and then flames up with such clarity of expression that his performance is a veritable textbook of acting technique.

Len Kiziuk's flamboyant Emory is the funniest and most fragile of all--brashness tempered with compassion, even for the man who struck him. Thom Blahnik as Donald brings intellectual integrity to the role, along with an emotional evenness that is always kind but that keeps him apart from the other characters. Richard Robb as the eccentric, permanently self-absorbed Harold, is a bit mannered in his behavior but proves sensitive and inventive at crucial moments. And as straight-man Alan, Bryan Schmoldt keeps his emotions so tightly wound that when he bursts into tears at the end of the play, we feel how he has changed, and we're moved by the spectacle.

Director Steven Tangedal arranges his actors in graceful, thoughtful patterns. Every prop is used well, and the marvelous set by Richard H. Pegg is arranged for maximum movement.

Sometimes the wordplay here grows tedious, and the ensemble cast has to stretch to get past the stereotypes built into Crowley's script. But the substance--what the playwright has to say about being shamed by a friend and feeling remorse over one's own cruelty--is truly significant. Self-hatred afflicts so many of us for so many reasons that Crowley touches on an unexpected universality.


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