The Boys in the Band returns

Mart Crowley talks about his iconic play's revival.

When playwright Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band opened in 1968, it was a watershed, pre-Stonewall moment in history, representing the first time that gay life received such open treatment onstage. It was turned into a popular film, directed by William Friedkin, in 1970. And now, as the Transport Group with director Jack Cummings III presents the show's first revival in over a decade, fans are curious about how the period piece—about a group of gay men who gather in a New York City apartment for a birthday party, drinking and bitching until the celebration takes a vicious turn—will have aged. Hopefully, it will have fared as well as the witty Mississippi-born, NYC-based Crowley, 75, whom we spoke to by phone.

The Boys in the Band has at times been shunned for promoting stereotypes. How bothered were you by that?
I understand very well when it went out of favor. The gay movement was just getting going, and any kind of negative stereotyping was not welcome because the best face possible was needed to make the movement successful. But that's an awful standard to hold to art. The curtain can't just go up with two happy people in rocking chairs saying, "I love you," and the other saying, "No, I love you more," and then the curtain coming down! Very positive images are not what dramatic fare is all about.

How much has the play's iconic status surprised you?
Totally! I mean, people thought I was nuts when I told them what I was writing. But I really don't think I did very much, because if I hadn't written it, certainly somebody else would have written their version of it. There was too much floating around out there. Who knows who it would've been, whether it would've been Terrence McNally or Arthur Laurents. Arthur later told me that he was working on a play at that time called The Enclave, and that Boys more or less stifled that. It's terribly interesting to me because Boys had been [in part] influenced by Arthur Laurents's screenplay for Rope, a 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie based on the Leopold and Loeb case.

Did it bother you that Men from the Boys, your 2002 follow-up to Boys in the Band, wasn't as successful?
Well, it's never been done in New York and I'd like to see it done. And I know lightning very rarely strikes twice. But nothing ever hit me as badly as the abject failure of the second play that I wrote after the success of Boys—Remote Asylum. It opened in Los Angeles in 1970, and it got absolutely savage reviews, and that caused the producers to completely lose faith in it.

What did that do to your psyche?
It sent me into a tailspin—a terrible one. I was already fairly on the edge anyway, but it started a whole bout with binge drinking and carrying on, and I didn't really recover from that for about two or three years. I didn't feel that I would ever do anything again, but the old feeling comes back.

Are you still writing?
No. I'm not. But I think something must be brewing because I'm really trying to get the hang of something called Final Draft, a program for screenplays. What I'm thinking about is dragging an old play out of the trunk that I like.

Your complete collection of plays was recently published by Alyson. So that must be inspiring.
I'm so happy to see that before I die! There are two plays that were never printed before—Remote Asylum being one of them. There's another, For Reasons That Remain Unclear, that I wrote about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I was abused as a child by the clergy, so I wrote about that, but it was too soon; it was before all the scandal, and I was just deemed sacrilegious. People walked out of it and wanted to spit on me! When [John Patrick] Shanley came along with Doubt, I went to it with trepidation, thinking, Oh God, well, he's done it. But it turns out it's what it says it's about—doubt. Mine's about without a doubt. [Cracks up] So I think it still has a shot.

How involved have you been in the revival and its "environmental" staging, which aims to make the audience feel like a part of the set?
I've tried to give the director and actors as much freedom as they want, and it's really been a love-in with this group. But when we first talked about [the staging], I said, "Oh, for God's sake, no touching! Please!" I despised Cats when those filthy cats came up the aisle. [Cracks up] I screamed at one of them, "Take your filthy paws off me!"

The Boys in the Band opens Sun 21 at Private apartment.

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