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Gay Old Times: The Boys in the Band and Yank!

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Gay Old Times: <em>The Boys in the Band</em> and <em>Yank!</em>

A gay renaissance appears to be hitting NYC theater these days, with the awaited transfers of Next Fall and The Temperamentals opening soon, The Pride with Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw packing ’em in downtown (review will appear here in early March), and The Boys in the Band and Yank!—all of which are right in line with following various gay experience over different periods of time (only one of the four is contemporary). Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, oft-regarded correctly as a landmark gay play and oft-regarded incorrectly as dated and passé, is the only revival in the mix, but it makes a certain cosmic sense to represent itself now. This play has to be, at least subconsciously, on the mind of nearly any modern gay writer (Douglas Carter Beane seems to have fashioned a whole career out of it). And the best way to present it is upfront and without much embellishment, with its acid observations and one-line zingers washing over you.

Transport Group’s excellent production puts the upfront part literally right in your face, in an actual Chelsea penthouse apartment, with patrons seated on four sides of a decked-out ’70s lair. This is, in itself, quite a brilliant move: It becomes a literal, four-sided representation of the audience seeing a mirror of themselves (let’s face it: the crowd for this show will probably be about 85% gay dudes). And the immediacy gives the uneasy feeling of eavesdropping on a party you’d both love and hate to be at. The party in question, the garrulous birthday gathering for the dry, sardonic, self-proclaimed Jewish misfit Harold (Jon Levenson) thrown by the lacerating, hysterics-prone Michael (Jonathan Hammond), is anything but festive, and director Jack Cummings III smartly reconfigures the cast to act as predators and prey (watch how the actors are often staged in nooks and perches or studiously eyeballing each other’s moves).

The ultimate male ensemble piece (everyone, save for the cowboy hustler promised to Harold, gets a juicy, revelatory scene), Boys stands or falls on its performers. And with one exception, this revival nails it: Hammond, if a bit heavy on the animal theme mentioned earlier, is suitably intense and hard not to watch; Kevyn Morrow is surprisingly forceful as Bernard, the party’s sole partygoer of color; and John Wellmann—in the pivotal, flamboyant role of super-queen Emory—absolutely kills it, not just in the calibrated bitchiness, but in subtly creating the armor that allows his character such free reign. Nick Westrate, as Michael’s patient younger lover, Christopher Innvar and Graham Rowat, as a couple with fidelity issues, and Kevin Isola as the enigmatic, out-of-his-element Alan (Michael’s old schoomate) all contribute choice moments as well. It’s a shame, then, that Levenson’s Harold—the greatest role in a play filled with them—seems like a tepid redux of Leonard Frey’s hypnotic turn in the 1970 film. From the moment he enters that penthouse door, his turn feels predigested, right down to Frey’s speech patterns and ghoul-like saunter that made him so scarily real a figure. But thankfully, this misstep (one that should be blamed on Cummings as well) doesn’t bring the party down. Even as you exit that apartment with a smattering of your fellow audience members and step into that elevator a little uneasily, it is proven that Crowley’s teasing, marvelously contradictory observations about men still work their magic.

Yank! is itself an interesting contradiction: a wholesome beefcake musical. This tale of a dewy, insecure young WWII serviceman named Stu (Bobby Steggert, fresh off his Ragtime triumph) who falls for a sensitive, butch, yet deeply closeted fellow bunker (Ivan Hernandez) may feature lots of fresh young buttcheeks on display and tender all-male embraces, but make no mistake—it will make your grandma smile ear to ear. Which is sort of why it’s hard to be down on its good intentions and sweet, unabashed 1940s throwback impulses (even featuring an Oklahoma!-style dream ballet featuring two men!) . Unfortunately, despite its charms, Yank! keeps doing what its title explicitly states, only to your better senses. You smile at the pleasant (though redundant) score by Joseph and David Zellnick and wistful flair for tap numbers and unamplified actors, yet there’s more innuendo flying around than a Judd Apatow movie, decidedly not very old-school. And the story eventually lacks proper shading; we’re too immersed in the characters’ wanton desires and not much to their minds.

Tackling homosexual desire and danger of revealing same-sex tendencies in WWII is ambitious, but the show becomes lily-livered right at the points where breakthroughs should be made. Steggert grounds the show with his boyish insouciance, but Stu remains more of a construct than a fleshed out guy. My hat goes off to the team behind Yank!; the show, despite its flaws, never seems overheated or groan-worthy and is truly unlike any other musical out there, but I wish there were as much meat in its storytelling as you see on stage.

The Boys in the Band is now playing in the penthouse apartment of 37 West 26th Street in New York City and continues until March 28. Schedule: Wed-Sat at 8pm, Sat at 4pm, Sun at 5pm. Running time: 2 hours, no intermission. For tickets, click here.

Yank! is now playing at the York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church (619 Lexington Ave at 54th St) in New York City and continues until March 21. Schedule varies. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission. For tickets, click here.