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Tucson Weekly Birthday Bash

Millennium Theatre's "Boys in the Band" Is Older But Not Wiser.

By Margaret Regan

July 8, 1997:  GUESS WHO'S coming to the gay birthday party? Alan, that's who, the straight-as-an-arrow college roommate of the mercurial party host, Michael. But if Alan's straight, why does he keep saying that Hank is such an attractive fellow? And why does he stay so long, even as the festivities turn malicious? But the question of is he or isn't he is just one of the plot devices that propels the wickedly funny drama of The Boys in the Band, now on the boards in a revival of mixed quality by the new Millennium Theatre Company.

Challenging Alan's assertions of heterosexuality is the least of the ground that this compassionate play broke when author Mart Crowley wrote it back in 1968. Taking an unprecedented step on the mainstream American stage, Crowley made the boys in his band members of an unapologetically gay universe. Sure, they like men, sure, they call each other Mary, but mostly they're just folks who have the same needs for love and happiness as anyone else.

Millennium sets the action in a lavishly decorated Southwestern-style apartment, which is fine, but the time is the 1990s, which is problematic. The Boys in the Band was written long before anybody had ever heard of AIDS, or even of the mysterious gay cancer. When Michael (Stephen Spiegel) tells his friend and sometime lover Donald (Jesse Jones) that the only way Donald will die young is if he smashes himself up in a car accident, we enter the realm of nostalgia. The specter of early death has unequivocally transformed the gay community, as plays like Jeffrey, produced last season by the Upstairs Theatre Company, so readily attest.

Some of the play's psychologizing is dated, too. Crowley trots out the old myth of the overbearing mother creating the gay son, a tiresome staple of antediluvian psychotherapy now mercifully laid to rest by more persuasive genetic research. And let's hope that the stereotype of the self-loathing gay man, alive and well in the play, is on its way to the same archetypal graveyard. To his credit, though, the main themes of Crowley's work are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago: Gays deal with the same life struggles as everybody else, but their problems are compounded by the unwavering hatred directed at them by much of the straight world. And by drenching his play with torrents of alcohol, Crowley mutely comments on the destructive way many gays still self-medicate their troubles.

Michael is the self-loather of the show, the gay man who's cruel to his friends because he hates himself. Spiegel, who took some fine comic turns in last month's Greater Tuna, is earnest and hard-working in the part, but he fails to make us truly understand his rage. The likable Jones is persuasive as his far more stable friend Donald; and director John Gunn turns in a fine, dry performance as Harold, the bitchy birthday boy.

But the rest of the acting is either poorly thought out or downright amateurish. Michael Shoel gives us a simplistic Alan, sketching out the ostensibly straight character with too many hands-in-the pocket, aw-shucks maneuvers and not much else. With the possible exception of Jimmie Johnson as the lovable "queen" Emory, the rest of the brand-new actors who take on the minor roles in the nine-character play are just not very good. Their inexperience seriously undermines what should be the mounting tension of the play's second act, when the drunken party games turn vicious. Part of the time these players flub their lines, speaking in unison or not at all; part of the time they don't speak loudly enough to be heard above the drone of the theatre's swamp cooler. And that's too bad, because the script is good, heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Millennium ought to stick to plays with smaller casts until the troupe can round up more seasoned talent.

The Boys in the Band continues through Sunday, July 6, at the Historic Y Theatre, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. There will be no performances on Friday, July 4. Tickets are $14 general, $12 for students and seniors. For reservations and information, call 882-7920.

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