The Boys in the Band

We’ve noted in the past that there are quite a few folks in Atlanta who enjoy flying to New York to take in Broadway and Off Broadway shows. So I’m happy to offer capsule reviews on three current hits that I just saw in the Big Apple. May they spur you on to visit the city that doesn’t sleep, where energy seems to flow up out of the ground—especially in the Times Square area!

I’ll start with “The Boys in the Band,” because the clock is really ticking on this show; it closes August 11. This is a shame because it’s standing room only and could run much longer. But it has some big name stars (often a necessity for Broadway success) who have TV and film commitments.

“The Boys” opened Off Broadway in 1968; a film was made in 1970. So it’s only taken 50 years to make the jump to Broadway. All theatre people know persistence is a necessity in the business; but this is ridiculous. Happily, playwright Mart Crowley (a robust 82) is still around to enjoy its success.

The play—funny, campy, caustic, and tragic—concerns a gay birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto), who isn’t thrilled about turning 32. The host is Michael (Jim Parsons), his best friend (theoretically). Guests include Donald (Matt Bomer) and six other people, all of whom are gay. An unexpected guest arrives: Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s old college roommate. The only problem is that Alan is straight and doesn’t know about Michael’s sexual orientation.

Needless to say, the entire chemistry of the evening is changed. Michael has never accepted the fact that he’s gay; he’s also alcoholic (probably) and has been on the wagon for six weeks. Alan’s arrival changes that instantly. And as Harold says about Michael: “Beware the hostile fag. When he’s sober, he’s dangerous. When he drinks, he’s lethal.” The term “politically correct” did not exist in 1968.

“The Boys in the Band” can be “screamingly funny,” as one critic wrote about the movie. Despite the fact that there’s self-hatred going around, the show is brilliantly theatrical; and there is also some genuine caring, especially with this cast, directed by Joe Mantello. The savvy 2018 audience knows all this and simply ate the play up, as they say. I was thrilled to see it, especially with the current cast. It also has a moving dénouement showing Jim Parsons’ surprising range as an actor, which he doesn’t get to demonstrate on “The Big Bang Theory.”

Straight White Men

From all gay to all straight in the new play “Straight White Men,” by Young Jean Lee, the first Asian-American woman to have a play done on The Great White Way, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. It stars Armie Hammer (of “Call Me By Your Name” fame), Josh Charles (TV’s “The Good Wife”), and Paul Schneider. The three play “privileged” brothers who have a Christmas Eve get-together with their widowed father (Stephen Payne).

As children, the boys played a board game called Privilege, invented by their mother, that purported to teach lessons about racism, denial, and economic depression. A large part of the play’s fun is seeing Drew (Hammer) and Jake (Charles) engage in childish dancing and hijinks as though they were 10.

But the fun ceases as their concern for their talented, Harvard-educated older brother Ed (Schneider) appears curiously unambitious and stalled in his life. What’s wrong with him?

Ed’s having second thoughts about his life, worth, and the inequality he sees around him. Drew thinks he needs therapy. Matt thinks he needs a kick in the pants. Dad Ed is nonplussed.

The play becomes an exploration of American values, capitalist beliefs versus social justice, and of identity and privilege. Yet, remarkably, it never loses its sense of fun or gets stuffy; quite an achievement for the playwright. “Straight White Men” is extremely well acted and leaves its audience with much food for thought. The show runs through September 9.

The Band’s Visit

Perhaps I’ve saved the best for last. “The Band’s Visit,” a musical with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, directed by David Cromer, won an amazing ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. If you saw the Tony Awards, you saw the enchanting Katrina Lenk (Best Actress Tony Winner) perform “Omar Sharif.” Many people knowing nothing about the show (including myself) were hypnotized by that one seductive number.

A projected image in writing starts the play: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” By the end of the evening we learn something very different.

We’re in Bet Hatikva, a small Israeli town where every day feels the same. But something different is about to happen. The members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Band, led by Tewfig (Sasson Gabay), somehow take a wrong turn and end up in the backwater of Bet Hatikva. They arrive looking like aliens in their uniforms; there’s not a bus out of town until the next morning.

As you may know, Egyptians and Israelis often harbor a basic distrust of one another. But here is where the magic begins. For “The Band’s Visit” is about that underlying ocean that connects everybody and everything. And as composer Yazbek says, the most potent metaphor for that connection is music.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that the play “flows with the grave and joyful insistence of life itself. All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the murmurs, whispers and silences of human existence at its most mundane—and transcendent.”

Here I must be a little mysterious: Nothing much happens; no grand love affairs, no intrigue and certainly no violence. Yet there is eroticism among people who rarely make physical contact; and a sense of occasion in a plot in which, really, very little happens. But a sense of nocturnal mystery envelops the whole evening; and most important, subtle human connections are made.

By the end of the evening you are hooked; you want these marvelous performers never to leave the stage. Happily, this richly awarded show is going to run for a long time. It’s a musical for grownups; do your best to see it.

So once again, New York works its magic; need I say that in this city these three lovely plays are just the tip of the iceberg. “The Fabulous Invalid”–Broadway–is still the center of theatre for the nation. (I also include Off and Off Off Broadway, of course.)

So as the airlines say—go. What’s stopping you?