To the characters in The Boys in the Band, someone like Pete Buttigieg would have been inconceivable—a happily out (and married) man who was a serious candidate for the U.S. presidency.
When Boys premiered in 1968—one year before the Stonewall riots—a same-sex couple still could be arrested for dancing together, even in a place as purportedly free-thinking as New York City’s Greenwich Village.
“Younger actors have to be very, very mindful that they’re not aware of the level of repression of these characters,” says Michael Pacas, who is directing the production of the play that will open at Palm Canyon Theatre for four shows on April 30. “Back then, you could be arrested for just being in a gay bar, have your name in the paper and be fired. Younger actors enjoy a much more permissive society.”
Boys, the story of a group of gay friends who have gathered at a Manhattan apartment for a birthday party, is a drama with flashes of bitter comedy. The birthday boy is Harold, a self-described “32-year-old ugly pockmarked Jew fairy” with a wicked wit, a stiletto tongue and an endless well of self-loathing. Many of the characters share Harold’s self-loathing to some degree, including Michael, the party’s host; Michael’s boyfriend, Donald; the promiscuous Larry; and Larry’s boyfriend, Hank, who is separated from a woman.
Many of the play’s most outrageous (and quotable) lines come from Harold or Emory, an interior decorator who’s the campiest of the camp. (It’s Emory, via playwright Mart Crowley, who coined the phrase, “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?”) A film version of Boys came out in 1970, and the play was revived in 2018 in a 50th anniversary edition in an all-star edition with gay actors Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto. That revival, with a slightly updated book, was filmed and will air on Netflix later this year. It’s the revival version, with the addition of an intermission, that will be performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre.
“We’re setting production in 1968,” Pacas says. “Everyone has a cell phone now, and the landline is a major plot device.”
Despite the many changes in LGBT rights since the play was written, Pacas says, “it really is sort of a snapshot of gay life.”
And not always a positive one, either. Of course, when George and Martha go for each other’s throats in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, no one expects their relationship to stand for every heterosexual marriage. But when Michael and Harold declare emotional war on each other, with devastating results, it was seen by some critics as an etched-in-acid portrayal of gay men at a time when mainstream portrayals of gay people still were rare. (“Show me a happy homosexual,” declares the cynical Michael, “and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”)
“People have two takes on the show,” Pacas says. “One is: ‘But it’s such a negative portrayal of gay men!’ Another is: ‘Oh, that’s such a fun show; this is what life really was like in 1968.”
Pacas says the latter attitude brings its own challenge, particularly for those audience members who come for the campy dialogue.
“We also have to communicate to those who want to quote the lines with the characters that there’s a lot of internal and external homophobia” mixed with the humor, he says.
Pacas grew up in Baton Rouge, La.
“I came from a rather—let’s just put it, Southern Baptist upbringing,” he says. “Back then, it was quite brave of you even to go to a gay bar. People were taking down the license plates of the people inside and trying to make trouble.”
He later moved to Chicago, where he met his husband, and the two moved to Palm Springs after visiting one weekend.
“If people think this play is a negative view of gay men,” he adds, “it’s my job, and the actors’ job, to make it empathetic. … We still have that same old bugaboo of hating ourselves.”
That’s not the only challenge in staging a 1960s period piece in 2020 Palm Springs.
“This show is a stage manager’s nightmare,” Pacas says. “People are onstage the whole time, moving around, eating food, drinking, eating birthday cake. And I need to talk to the actors just in case someone is gluten-free or has allergies.
“Unlike back then,” he adds with a laugh, “we may end up with a vegan birthday cake.”
The Boys in the Band will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 30; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, May 1 and 2; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 3, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $29.50. For tickets or more information, call 760.323.5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org. Kevin Allman is a California-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @kevinallman.