By MIKE CHAIKEN
Mart Crowley’s play“The Boys in the Band” was written and performed originally in 1968.
As press materials from New Britain’s Hole in the Wall Theater explained, the play offered ”frank treatment of its homosexual characters (and) shocked mainstream audiences and helped contribute to the growing gay pride movement.”
Dana O’Neal is directing the play for HITW and recognizes that some may wonder why he would want to tackle a show that hasn’t been performed in such a long time.
O’Neal, who graduated high school in 1968 when the play was written, said “The Boys in the Band” is not only about homosexuality. It shows “how far things have progressed in terms of homosexuality.”
The show predates many of the landmarks in the Gay Rights movement, noted O’Neal. It was staged prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots, in which, according to GLAAD.org, “(On) Saturday, June 28, 1969, police led a raid at the Stonewall Inn, a bar located in Greenwich Village on Manhattan’s west side. It wasn’t uncommon for police to lead raids there and in other LGBT-friendly areas, arresting and harassing the customers. But this time, unsuspectingly, patrons fought back… When the police were forced to retreat into the bar, patrons even tried to set it on fire.” GLAAD explained Stonewall was significant for Gay Rights because for once the gay community opted not to be submissive.
In addition to being a precursor to Stonewall, “The Boys in The Band” predates the onset of AIDS, which decimated the gay community first, and the federal policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in regards to gays serving in the armed forces, explained O’Neal.
The story of “The Boys and the Band,” which takes place a birthday party at the apartment of one of a group of friends, follows the characters as they deal with own their homosexuality, whether it is “coming out of the closet and/or staying in the closet and nailing the door shut,” explained O’Neal.
O’Neal said the idea for Hole in the Wall to produce “The Boys in the Band” was his own. He presented the play to the theater as a possibility for its season and he was given the green light.
Although he had never seen the show in its original off-Broadway run, O’Neal said he bought a copy of the script when he was in college and loved it. He always held it in the back of his mind that some day he would like to act in or direct a stage production of the show.
“It’s a very good piece of literature,” said O’Neal of the Crowley creation. He said it’s probably one of the best plays ever written. And it’s not just a “gay play,” he said. The show is as much about the characters living with the decisions they make for themselves as well as tackling the topics of love and relationships.
“Gay or straight, you can relate to these characters … and you can relate to what works and doesn’t work for their lives,” said O’Neal.
In terms of the cast, if you’ve been to Hole in the Wall before, O’Neal said you’ll see some familiar faces. But O’Neal also is working with actors new to the venue. And many of them, gay or straight, were able to bring their own life’s experiences to the table to help give dimension to their characters on stage, said O’Neal.
Chief among the new faces is Joe Autuoro of Newington, who is cast in the lead role of “Michael,” the host of the birthday party that is central to the action on stage. “He looks the part and acts the part. He is made for the part,” said O’Neal, noting Autuoro is able to reach the emotional core of Michael.
Tom Bryda of Bristol, who plays “Cowboy,” also offered O’Neal the opportunity to offer a different take on how the characters were portrayed in the original production (which was transformed into a movie in 1970). The original Cowboy offered more comic relief to the action on stage. Due to Bryda’s acting ability, O’Neal was able to shape a more serious take on the character, who is a male prostitute.
As for the rest of the cast, O’Neal said “they bring life into the old script… Everyone in my cast is phenomenal.”
O’Neal also extended credit to his technical crew for helping breathe life into his ideas on stage.
The Hole in the Wall production will remain true to the time period, said O’Neal. The theater has gone about the task of assembling a wardrobe, set, and props that are apropos for 1968, he said. Although the temptation is there with plays of a certain vintage to modernize them, O’Neal said much of what happens on stage in “The Boys in the Band” is specific to the time period.
Hole in the Wall also has opted not to sugarcoat the play. Besides the frank topic, O’Neal said he has kept in the brief nudity, foul language, and drug use that was part of the action in the original production.
There have been some challenges as the production at Hole in the Wall dives headlong into its Jan. 16 preview. With a show opening up in mid-January, O’Neal said they lost some rehearsal time to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Additionally, the recent snowstorms bit into their prep time.
But, O’Neal wasn’t worried.
“I’m very happy with what’s happening.”
The cast for “The Boys in the Band” features Joe Autuoro of Newington as “Michael,” Jake Williams of East Hampton as “Donald,” Matthew Pechous of Stratford as “Emory,” Keith Giard of South Windsor as “Hank,” Michael Reilly of Torrington as “Larry,” Rodney K. of Canton as “Alan,” Joshua Thompson of Berlin as “Bernard,” Matthew Skwiot of New Britain as “Harold,” the birthday boy, and Tom Bryda of Bristol as “Cowboy,” his present.
It is directed by Dana O’Neal and produced by Warren Dutkiewicz.
The show runs from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 19 and Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. On Thursday, Jan. 16 at 8 p.m., there will be a Pay-What-You-Can Preview
General admission tickets are $20. Senior/students tickets are $15. Tickets are available online at http://www.hitw.org
Hole in the Wall Theater is at 116 Main St., New Britain.
By MIKE CHAIKEN