Entertainment » Culture

Mart Crowley :: The Man Behind the 'Boys'

by Steve Weinstein
Friday Feb 12, 2010

It never ceases to amaze me that there are gay men who have never experienced The Boys in the Band. And, come to think of it, lesbians. And heterosexuals. And transgendered. And questioning.

It's not just because "Boys" is the ür-text of urban gay male bonding. Nor is it because "Boys" is the landmark gay play, which, coming two years before Stonewall, presaged that big bang event and its aftermath in so many, many ways. Nor even because the play and later movie have become legendary in show business annals.

No, I'm surprised because The Boys in the Band, is, quite simply, one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century.

The premise is deceptively simple: A group of gay men meet in an East Side apartment to celebrate one of their posse's birthday. The straight former college roommate of the host arrives to upset the equilibrium. As the evening goes on, everyone gets drunker (and, in some cases, more stoned on pot--it's the '60s).

They play a vicious "Truth" game in which they have to contact the one person each one has truly loved. At evening's end, Michael, the host, is reduced to a pathetic mess. "If we could only learn to stop hating ourselves," he moans.

Since it premiered off-Broadway in April 1968, "Boys" has invited interpretation and controversy. That original production became the year's theatrical sensation. Each night, the small theater was packed with celebrities who trekked to the Village to see what all the fuss was about.

Still can sting

In the ensuing decades, "Boys" has lost none of its sting. Thanks largely to an excellent film transfer--one of the very few times a New York cast of unknowns was brought over whole to the film version--the play has stayed in the public eye.

Many have dismissed "Boys" as a period piece or condemned Crowley as being as self-hating as Michael. Well, maybe. Maybe not. Like any great work of art--and trust, me this indeed is a work of art, downright Shakespearean in its conception and achievement--it leaves itself open to various interpretations.

My own personal take is that Crowley has constructed archetypes who stand the test of time and place. Pauline Kael compared Crowley's band of brothers (or "girlfriends") to one of those World War II movies, with the hillbilly, the Brooklyn white ethnic, the Ivy League-educated WASP, etc.

Here, it's the couple fighting because one wants monogamy, the other wants to play around; the femmy guy with the interior soul made of steel; the well-educated, heavy reader who could never get it together and works odd jobs; the pock-marked unattractive guy who smokes too much pot and protects himself with bitchy bon mots.

And people think these guys somehow magically disappeared after June 1969, when the queers fought the police at Stonewall? As Emory might say, "Oh, Mary, get over yourself."

This production of The Boys in the Band is being produced by the Transport Group, a great Downtown troupe that is dedicated to reviving 20th century American classics. It received a special Drama Desk citation for its "breadth fo vision and its presentation of challenging productions."

Every member of the all-male cast will be known to theater aficionados. Mart Crowley, who moved back to New York after a long, long sojourn in Los Angeles, helped oversee the casting and is involved in this production.

Crowley :: sharp, clever and bitchy as ever

EDGE spoke to Crowley, who, older than--well, older than 60 (we're nice!)--is as sharp, clever, funny and, yes, mercifully, bitchy as ever.

EDGE: Tell me about the genesis of The Boys in the Band.

Mart Crowley: I was very, very broke and completely down and out. I'd lost my agent, was fired from a Paramount movie. I had to sublet my house in Hollywood to a Hungarian actor. The sublet was the only income I had!

I had a friend, a rich actress no longer an actress, Diana Lynde, who had married a man whose mother was Dorothy Schiff, who owned the New York Post. They had a mansion on Tower Road (in L.A.), a yacht, four kids.

Diana called me, concurrently with my dire siatuion, and said she and her husband, and Hope and Alan Pakula were going on their yacht, but didn't want to take kids on board. Ca you come over here and house sit for six weeks? I said, I'll be there.

From the ridiculous to the sublime. There I was in this glorious mansion. I was fucking depressed my career was completely over with.

I thought, I've got to do something with my time in this house. I'm getting my clothes laundered, breakfast on a tray. On the fourth or fifth day, I was coming out of this horrible depression. I picked up a legal pad and started writing dialogue between Arthur and Patrick. That became the opening scene between Michael and Donald in the play.

Once I got going, it was faster than I could write longhand. I took the notepads down to a library, which was worthy of a Warner Bros. set. I began to type up all the pages. I was going like a house on fire all day long. Even though I did that, by the time they came home, six weeks later, I had wasted the first week. So I wrote it in five weeks--wiith exception of the last scene, Michael's breakdown and Donald's rescue.

I left Diana's with the money accumulated from sublet of my apartment. I stuck the play under my arm and went to New York with that money. A friend Robert Moore (who ended up directing "Boys") was appearing on Broadway with Lauren Bacall in Cactus Flower. I thought he was a lousy actor, a much better director. He was a friend from college. I brought the play to him unfinished.

He had, because he was making money on Broadway, rented a house on Fire Island for a month. After Labor Day weekend, everybody was packing up. He still had a week on the house. He said, "If you want to go out there and spend the week, before we have to turn the house over, you can stay there."

That's when I wrote the last scene of the play. Everybody knew about Fire Island. But that was the only time I had gone out there by myself. For once, I was not there to cruise and get drunk and dance all night at the Botel. That was September 1967.

As a result, when the play came out, I met Richard Barr and Edward Albee in a matter of weeks. The first slot they could schedule was January 1968. It played for only five performances, but when word got out on this play, so many people showed up, they added four more performances. That was all Equity allowed.

Then Richard Barr took an option on the play. The first time they could find was April 1968.

EDGE: What do you say to people who question the relevance of The Boys in the Band in an era when men (in Manhattan, at least) can be out comfortably?

M.C.: Kids today, they know very fucking little about how it was. And they take an awful lot for granted.

They might find it startling that there was a time when guys had to meet in a clandestine way and keep the noise down or have the cops come to your own apartment. Any hint of homosexual gathering like an orgy.

I remember just a Halloween party in the '60s where we were all dressed in costumes and the neighbors complained about the noise. The cops took it as a reason to come in and raid and take some people in. I got arrested with a group of dancers. '62 or '61. West Side Story was shooting. The dancers were thrown in jail. We all had to go work at Goldwyn Studios. They were in the picture. They were scared to death. I certainly wasn't going to say anything about who I worked for. The studio got somebody to come over, bail us out. The dancers had to get made up and dance all day long.

I'll be interested if someone writes a 21st century play showing me a liberated, completely fresh new take on human beings. I haven't seen it. Have you?

'Boys' still relevant?

EDGE: How involved are you in this new production of "Boys"?

M.C.: I've been involved since the get-go. I saw a few productions the Transport Group had done in seasons past and became chatty with the artistic director. Out of that came a reading of the play with the two original cast members still alive (Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White) as benefit for the troupe.

Based on the success of that evening, they thought, "Oh, well, there's still some relevance to that play. We want to schedule a production." Then they decided to do it premium-style, in the round.

They were going to do the sequel as well. But then the recession hit, so it became impossible. What they're doing instead is, on the dark nights, Monday, they're reading my other five professionally produced plays, which just came out in a compilation from Alyson Publishers.

EDGE: Sequel? To The Boys in the Band?

M.C.: Yes. After the Sunday matinee on Feb. 28, people can go out and come back at 8:30 for a reading of The Men from the Boys. It's the only time to see that play done with this group.

It's never been produced on the East Coast. It was in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but never beyond those places. I wrote it in 1992. I'm excited to get a a reading of it. But it won't be the same actors.

It takes place in the same apartment 30 years later. The characters are pushing just this side and that of 60. I don't know how eager even gay men are to see it. They like to see pretty young boys and men, but they're not going to get much flesh in this production! Who wants to see a bunch of guys on the edge of 60?

It deals with issues about aging, looking good, losing your hair. It's the natural process of time. It sometimes doesn't jibe with the gay agenda. That's the opinion of some, anyway.

When I went into a 12-step recovery program (for drinking) 21 years ago, I met and got heavily emotionally invested with the people in my group. Some were quite a bit younger and had a completely different view of life. At one point, I was dizzy from falling in love again at my age with a guy who could have been my son.

I used those people I met in Men from the Boys. It's not just exclusively the characters from Boys in the Band. Lots would not be in that confluence. The hustler would be lost in the night. The straight guy who shows up that night -- his friendship with Michael was over that night.

The original takes place at a birthday party for Harold. The sequel takes place at a "celebration of life" for one of the guys who died. There are six of the original nine involved in the play and three who are young, in their late 20s and early 30s. They're here at this party following a funeral with the men who are in their late 50s. Harold would be 62. The other guys are from 58 to 62.

I was very grateful I had first-hand knowledge of their lives and feelings. I heard a lot in those meetings that enlightened me about the lives of younger people. That was going in the play, the fucked-up lives of younger people.

EDGE: Are you working on anything now?

M.C.: (Laughs) If I went back to writing, after the dust settles here, I'll have time on my hands. I have a bunch of things in my trunk, including a draft of an incident in the '40s. I would feel more comfortable writing a period piece.

EDGE: And now, these many years later, you're back in New York, where it all began.

M.C.: I've been back two-and-a-half years and I'm so happy. My life in show business ran out out there at least a decade ago. I stayed at the party a bit too long. I should have come back to New York a decade earlier. I live on East 54th Street. Naturally, it's changed. When I got out of college in 1957 from college to New York, I got a cold water flat for $68 a month, on the corner of Second Avenue and 52nd Street.

I came here all the time to this building. I knew millions who lived here. It was full of gay man and fag hagish women--Hermione Gingold. Eillen Herlie, Constance Bennett. Millions of showbiz people.

Now it's gotten very yuppie. Lot of couples with babies. That was not true in the '50s, '60s and '70s. But I love it. I love being back.

If you happen to be in New York between Feb. 12 and March 14, you can see The Boys in the Band at 37 W. 26th St., penthouse. Tickets are available via the Transport Group.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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