COSTA MESA — Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band" was a groundbreaker in its day. It was the first openly gay American play to hit Broadway--it was 1968, and the British "Staircase" opened the same year in New York.
It's not often revived, and that's a shame. It's a very good play, in which the characters' homosexuality is not as important as its more universal examination of how we treat our own insufficiencies and how we approach the insufficiencies of others.
That universality is at the core of Mario Lescot's pithy staging at the Theatre District. Crowley's play, when it is revived, is usually played for the camp humor that runs through it.
Lescot takes a different tack, which not only gives new shadings but illuminates the sharp edges of Crowley's insights into this special microcosm of society, a world at heart not much different from any other.
There is a very dark thread Lescot weaves in and out of the action of the play, which takes place at a birthday party where the fun is often forced and the intents of the celebrators are not always what they seem.
In any production, the dramatic fulcrum balances the tense relationship between host Michael (David Rousseve) and his heterosexual ex-college roommate Alan (David Frederick Fogg), who happens to drop in, at exactly the wrong time, on a society he both fears and abhors.
The intimations of this relationship are strong to begin with, but Lescot has found equally powerful minidramas in the relationships of all the characters to one another.
His concept is humanistic but slightly cynical, and it is riddled with much of the same sense of anguished despair that has trapped the lost souls in O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." The play has rarely looked this rich and profound.
Lescot's cast is on the same wavelength as he is. They have created a group of real people, not camp icons. Each is trapped in his private hell, and most often it is not sexual orientation that causes the pain. It is their struggle to live as themselves.
In this staging Rousseve's Michael, whose anger often doesn't emerge until late in the play, makes his flaw apparent from the beginning. He is the only member of the group who really doesn't care for who he is, and Rousseve shows Michael's inner soul from the first moment.
Michael would like to believe his college friend has not come out of his closet yet. Fogg invests his character with a proper solidity and assurance, mingled with lost images and submerged terror, along with a desperate compulsion to understand this group.
Strong performances are provided by Kevin Deegan as Michael's friend Donald, who is in town for his regular bout with his analyst, by Brian Harvey as the recently divorced teacher who can't accept the open arrangement required by his lover, and by John Bowerman as the stoned, smirking, bitter birthday boy Harold.
Several other performances are particularly poignant and multilayered: Christopher Spencer as the wildly flamboyant Emory, who pushes Michael's college friend to the edge of hatred; the warm, truthful Louis Hale as a friend of Emory's whose courage during Michael's vicious party game stuns the whole group; and especially Kennedy York as the teacher's totally straightforward and libidinous lover, Larry. York's portrayal is intricate and has a rock-solid core.
The only performance that doesn't come up to the rest of the company is that of Randy Bushnell as Cowboy, the dumb, naive hustler Emory has purchased for the night as Harold's birthday present. Bushnell never seems connected to the rest of the cast and only succeeds in playing dumb, rather than actually being dumb.
* "The Boys in the Band," the Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 15. (714) 435-4043. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
David Rousseve: Michael
Kevin Deegan: Donald
Christopher Spencer: Emory
Kenneth York: Larry
Brian Harvey: Hank
Louis Hale: Bernard
Randy Bushnell: Cowboy
John Bowerman: Harold
David Frederick Fogg: Alan
A Theatre District production of Mart Crowley's drama. Directed by Mario Lescot. Scenic design: Two Blue Chairs Inc. Lighting design: David Jacobi. Costume design: Joan Lescot. Stage managers: Sharon Evans, Bruce Beckman.