BY JEFF LEVENE
Take a moment with me to imagine a game. You’re given a phone and instructed that no matter how estranged, no matter how awkward, no matter how obvious the answer, you must call the person you’ve loved most in your life and tell them about your affections. Given the sheer beauty and talent I just witnessed on stage last night, I’d be hard pressed not to dial up every single person involved in Proud Mary Theatre Company’s production of The Boys in the Band.
The Boys in the Band open with Michael (Brady Coyle Smith) as he prepares his NYC pad for he and his fellow queens to celebrate the birthday of their friend Harold (Jon Kilpatrick). Set to be an evening of fun and pride, everything changes when Michael receives a call from an old college roommate, the hyper conservative Alan (Luke Browder), asking if he can stop by. As guests arrive Michael demands for his friends to quiet their gayness, quickly alienating the room. And when Alan begins taking shots (both literal and figurative) at the effeminate nature of specific guests, Michael snaps, sending the party into a collapsing fire of bitter games, spiteful intentions, racist tirades, and explosively cruel revelations.
Director John Fagan has not only assembled one of the greatest casts in the history of Greenville theatre, but has also perfectly crafted every aspect of this production making it a testament to the power of interactive theatre.
Fagan’s set design utilizes every inch of the West Main Artists basement, placing the audience right on the set with the cast. Hip art covers the walls, chic 60s furniture is mere feet away from audience members, and the three exits just doors to the room. The audience is right inside the apartment, and they become part of the party.
Along with this, all nine actors are typically all on the stage, and Fagan has ensured there is something exciting happening no matter where you look. In one corner two characters may be having a scandalously flirtatious side conversation, in another someone is pouring a round of drinks, and sometimes there is even someone drunkenly stumbling on the floor right at your feet. And the flow of movement is so natural it only builds on the sense of these characters as real people.
Speaking of real, Coyle-Smith’s Michael is teeming with motivation. He begins as a performative lovable host, sprawling jokingly sensuously on the couch and delivering drinks like a bartending Mae West, only to shift to nervous self-consciousness as he tries his best to tone down his friends’ antics. Once angered and liquored up, he flips back to performative, but now using spiteful glare downs, physical dominance over others, and enough hot side eye to spoil his cracked crab party platter. And then, just as quickly, he finally explodes into a nervous regretful wreck. It’s a nuanced part and Coyle-Smith is able to show off every weapon in his legendary arsenal of physicality and vocal control. He ensures that each layer of Michael is seen so very clearly, and then blends these layers to emphasize his fullness as a character.
Kilpatrick’s Harold is a queen in absolute control, surveying the room and reading any cards that others may be holding close. He is particularly hilarious when picking over his boytoy cowboy gift (Zachary Urban). He’s surprisingly protective when he attempts to steer the party in the correct direction. And he’s heinously cruel when he rips apart Michael’s inner workings.
Charlie Hyatt’s Donald offers a nice counter to these two controlling heavy hitters as he emits a tired kindness when trying to calm situations. Even after the evening comes crashing down, Hyatt’s helpfulness has not run out, but the hopelessness behind his eyes implies a realization that this kindness may be undeserved.
As for Zachary Urban’s Tex, he brings some of the biggest laughs of the show, portraying the cowboy escort as a goofy 20 something who’s plenty brawn, no brain, and all joyful disposition. Insults roll off his back as he maintains a dopey grin, or guffaws at a lame obnoxious joke.
Browder brings a complex civility to Alan, obviously acting perturbed by the actions of the party, but only drawn to show case his disgust when confronted. Browder also uses these brilliant glimpses of empathy when hearing stories of the party goers old loves, and while he fluctuates to rage when faced head on, these windows keeps us constantly guessing as to how Alan’s true opinions fit into the situation.”
Ray Cohen’s Bernard builds perfectly to the proclamation that as a black gay man, he has been dealt an even less privileged life than his friends. Cohen carefully controls his reactions, building them with each bit of racism he faces throughout the night. And when his caged resentment peaks and he finally and firmly confronts the others, the audience is immediately cheering that he has put his foot down. This pay-off is so satisfying because of how delicately Cohen has staggered his reactions to the situation.
Brandon Mimnaugh as the loud and proud Emory on the other hand wildly announces his opinions and perceptions. The least afraid to back down, Mimnaugh is hilariously vocal, but also deceptively heartwrenching, especially once he realizes his heart on his sleeves demeanor has caused many of his own struggles. Likewise the quickest to forgive, Mimnaugh provides a beautiful ernesty and equally tragic frustration when his efforts at civility are mocked or betrayed.
Holt McCarley’s Larry and Benjamin Abrams’ Hank are the perfect match, both confident and cool in their demeanor, playing off each other’s building jealousy. McCarley is cocksure, testing the waters as he flirts with other guests- but also delivering one of the shows most honest and open moments. Meanwhile, Abrams finds the perfect balance of standard civility and public respect with his equally uncompromising love for his partner once his identity as a bisexual man comes into question.
And Brook Nelson’s costume design adds depth for these characters as she equips each actor with the perfect garb to fit their personality, be it beads for Emory to play with, Harold’s Elton John style glasses, or even Donald’s more mundane street clothes matching his toned down sense of awareness.
Proud Mary’s production of The Boys in the Band works so well because it adds up to the sum of its first rate parts. Its direction is detailed and immersive. Its acting is nuanced and layered. Its design is all built with purpose, function and immersion at the forefront. Each aspect of this production’s ensemble works in perfect harmony, making The Boys in the Band one beautiful symphony of reality, chaos, and heart that you don’t want to miss
The Boys in the Band runs in Oct. 25-Nov. 3 at the West Main Artists Cooperative and GUUF – Greenville Unitarian. Tickets are available online at proudmarytheatre.com or by calling the box office at 864-580-8385.