Gay culture seems to evolve so quickly that any snapshot is almost instantly antiquated. Offering a queer eye to a straight guy today is almost as passé as wearing an earring in your right ear. Ten years from now, people will recall the primitive times when two women in Arkansas couldn’t marry each other.
But despite any change in circumstances, gays and lesbians continue to have many of the same conversations. Alcoholism, sex, abuse, suicide—while these topics aren’t confined to gay circles, their ubiquity over the decades reminds us that not all ground covered is new. Director Jon Kretzu vividly conveys this in two seminal works of homosexual theater now at Defunkt: The Boys in the Band and The Children’s Hour.
The 1968 off-Broadway production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was the first depiction of gay men to reach a mainstream audience. The play is credited for empowering gay men at a time when they were marginalized, and it was a precursor to 1969’s Stonewall riots.
Defunkt’s production is a memorable one. Staged in a private home on East Burnside Street, an audience of roughly a dozen lines the walls of a midcentury-designed living room. The effect is intimacy not only with the actors, who at times stand inches from your face and even step on your shoe, but also between audience members: You share every laugh and awkward moment with the person sitting across the room.
The play, which revolves around a birthday party for one man, Harold, could be set today with only minimal line adjustments. The party guests are archetypes for any group of gay men: the neurotic one, the know-it-all, the lothario, the butch one, the femme one, and so on. One-liners zing back and forth with zeal that would put Henny Youngman to shame, and the dishing and self-deprecation are relentless.
Particularly magnetic is Harold (Matthew Kerrigan), who practically hisses his nihilistic worldview between puffs of his cigarette. When Michael (Jeffrey Arrington) accuses him of being late, he dryly retorts, “What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy.” Equally but more joyfully engaging is Matthew Kern’s effeminate Emory. The mood is lifted as soon as he swishes through the door. “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” he squeals.
Darker than its counterpart, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour is a more traditional narrative set on Defunkt’s usual stage at the Back Door Theater. Less about homosexuality than about gossip, the play focuses on a sociopathic monster of a little girl, Mary (Roxanne Stathos), who pretends to faint one second and attacks a classmate the next. Melissa Whitney and Grace Carter star in this production as headmistresses of a private school, but Mary and the three other girls loom over the stage in school desks for most of the show, giving the play an ominous tone.
The Children’s Hour was first performed in 1934, when even the mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York, though the play’s popularity gained it a pass. It’s a suspenseful tale, and while slow at times, the gravitas of its historical context isn’t lost on today’s audience.
In the same way, while many parts of The Boys in the Band
are relevant today, others—the shame, the self-hate, the blame on an
overbearing mother—are quickly becoming vestiges of a more tortured
time. Perhaps gay culture is fleeting, and perhaps that’s good. Maybe
years from now, the next generation will watch Will and Grace reruns and imagine how different things used to be.
SEE IT: The Boys in the Band is at 3125 E Burnside St. The Children’s Hour is at the Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Times vary; call 481-2960 or visit defunktheatre.com for details. $15-$20.