Theater Review: BOYS IN THE BAND (The Bent at Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs)

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by Jason Mannino on May 1, 2023

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley),Theater-Regional


Coachella Valley’s new queer theater company The Bent — in partnership with the Palm Springs Cultural Center — closes its wildly successful inaugural season with Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, running through May 7. Artistic Director Steve Rosenbaum and Managing Director Terry Ray moved quickly to fill the void in local theater left by the unfortunate closing of Desert Rose Playhouse. Given the palpable enthusiasm of the nearly sold-out audience at Friday’s opening, their decision to create this company was a wise one.

Crowley wrote this cutting-edge (for the time) drama in response to the oppressive attitudes toward homosexuals, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1968, one year before the Stonewall Riots. At the time, homosexuals were constantly faced with violence and unfair laws. Even today, certain state governments and the extreme right are still attempting to cancel drag queens and transgender people along with the queer community in general. Sadly, because of incessant attempts to erase us, many gay people go through life with a need to heal past trauma that leads to shame and self-loathing. Through that lens, while very much a period piece, The Boys in the Band will remain relevant indefinitely.

Kevin Steinberg and Terry Ray

The play is set on the evening of a boisterous birthday party being given by former Catholic and “recovering” alcoholic Michael (Terry Ray) for his caustic Jewish friend, Harold (played with poisonous venom by Scott Khouri). All the party attendees, who were originally written as being in their 30s, deem themselves as over the hill. So, it was an innovative and interesting choice for this creative team to cast the production with actors who are all middle aged. Guests include Donald (Scott Sterling Hill), Michael’s younger boyfriend who has left Manhattan in favor of peace in the Hamptons. Hill does an excellent job playing Donald even-keeled against the play’s significantly more excitable characters.

Also included are the couple Hank (Kai Brothers), a high school math teacher, and his lover, Larry (Matthew Yenisel), a commercial artist. Brother’s gives an excellent performance as the most straightlaced of the friends against Yenisel’s Larry, who seems to be a bit ahead of his time with his unapologetic desire for a sexually open relationship. There are also the flamboyant Emory, acted delightfully with palpable pain by Grey LeFey, and his African-American bff, Bernard (Tony Bradford). I give kudos to Bradford for the courage and skill he brings to a character that is constantly dodging being “Uncle Tommed,” and thrown racial insults by Emory, who at the end of the play asks for Bernard’s forgiveness.

Grey LeFey and Emrhys Cooper

Emory’s gift to Harold then arrives. It’s a hunky, dumb, young hustler, simply called Cowboy (Emrhys Cooper). There is nothing dumb about Cooper’s performance. He is stellar in the role. The uninvited guest who crashes the party is Michael’s straight, former college roommate, Alan (Kevin Steinberg). He phoned earlier begging Michael to let him stop by to discuss a personal problem. Alan does not realize he is joining a party with a room filled with over-the-top gay men that will trigger his homophobia. Steinberg does a fine job mining Alan’s deeply stewing anger, pain and homophobia.  The fireworks ignite and the intermission-free one-act drama begins to resemble a gay version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Directed with precision by Rosenbaum, the cast features some of the area’s finest actors, each of whom bring warmth and dignity to their roles. Mr. Ray superbly demonstrates his stage prowess as the party’s host and the leading character, expertly masking Michael’s pain and self-loathing with humor and sarcasm. Imbibing booze after five weeks of sobriety, Michael’s discomfort with Alan grows, and he instigates a biting if sophisticated verbal war with Harold and his other guests. By the end of the play, Michael has become a viscous queen, reduced to tears. Through his tears he utters, “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” And, with that he leaves us with a glimpse of hope for what is to come for the queer community, which, even in the face of unfathomable adversity, has come a long way since 1968 — even if we still have a long way to go.

Cast of The Boys in the Band

photos by Wilkinson

The Boys in the Band
The Bent
in partnership with The Palm Springs Cultural Center
Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Rd. in Palm Springs
ends on May 7, 2023
for tickets ($35), visit The Bent

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