The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
How much has life changed for gay men in New York in the 41 years since The Boys in the Band premiered Off-Broadway? Judging from Jason Mitchell’s often hilarious The Boys Upstairs, playing at the New York International Fringe Festival: quite a bit, and not so much. The world is somewhat more open these days, to be sure. But connection, with others as well as oneself, remains frustratingly elusive. And, apparently, it’s still a certainty that some shirtless guy will show up at the door.
But make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t answering Mart Crowley’s trailblazing play as directly as Jonathan Tolins did six years ago with The Last Sunday in June. Instead, he’s set out to prove that gay culture is now assimilated enough in American culture that a reverse-orientation Seinfeld or a reverse-gender Sex in the City isn’t only possible, but sellable to straight audiences, too. And, if Mitchell hasn’t broken any other new ground, he's unquestionably succeeded.
There’s less a single story here than a collection of lightly linked vignettes that examine different facets of the lives of three men - plus their on-again-off-again partners, and one neighbor - in a swank Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Josh (Nic Cory) is a trust fund-financed Village Voice intern, who’s smart, perpetually single, and obsessed with establishing a column-blog-iPhone app that will instantly answer gay men’s most burning questions. His roommate and one-time boyfriend Seth (Joel T. Bauer) is a teacher, and recently entered into a rare committed relationship. Ashley (Kristen-Alexzander Griffith) is the super-promiscuous Southern Belle wannabe who’s as talented summoning up (and scaring off) one-night stands as Josh is at turning arch phrases. The handsome Eric (Josh Segarra) just moved in downstairs, but is so clueless, so bad holding his liquor, and so fashion-challenged, the guys assume he must be straight.
Each of the 11 scenes considers a different scenario, with a different combination of players. (David A. Rudd rounds out the cast as a go-everywhere date-trick-boyfriend.) Ashley wakes up next to someone whose name he can’t remember. The three friends get to know Eric over too many drinks at an impromptu cocktail party. (They have lots of those.) Eric emerges from a hangover three-quarters naked and lying next to Ashley. Josh needs a date for a major club opening, but can’t find anyone to join him. Seth freaks at every unexpected twist of serious-relationship life. And so on.
No, there’s not a lot going on here. But because Mitchell has scribed his exchanges with such style and director Matthew Corozine has staged them with such unflagging energy, you never have time to worry about any inherent shallowness - you're laughing too frequently. Scenes so obvious that they should automatically deflate, such as Eric scrambling to escape Ashley’s desperate clutches or the appearance of an overexcited Don’t Tell Mama busboy-cum-actor who speaks only in show-tune titles and lyrics, are so smoothly managed, unerringly paced, and played for keeps that you never once feel you’re retreading ancient concepts.
A major element of the show’s success are the actors, who have exactly the sharply honed sitcom chemistry needed to make eye-rollingly silly situations and dialogue not only believable but recognizable. Cory has mastered Josh’s urbane dialogue, and Bauer Seth’s constant confusion - but they percolate so wonderfully together that you understand exactly the rocky history between them that will eventually prove so crucial. Segarra makes Eric a compellingly likable “aw, shucks” cipher, and ensures his story interesting enough to follow to its conclusion. Rudd’s a dynamic presence, and if he doesn’t make the various extras particularly strong, that’s strangely appropriate given their glancing involvement in the lead trio’s collective story.
Then there’s Griffith. His Ashley is a remarkable creation, half Blanche DuBois and half RuPaul, yet entirely hilarious. But beneath his insatiable façade, there’s a palpable pain, an emptiness you truly believe he wants to fill, and that makes his exploits - which are always the most outrageous - somewhat sad, too. Ashley may have the most sex, but he finds the least love - and you can tell that matters more to him than he lets on. It’s hard to feel too sorry for Ashley, however, as he’s the most in control. In one scene at the performance I attended, Griffith had to contend with both a meddlesome fly and an uncooperative doorknob. But he attacked and nominated both in ways that weren’t merely triumphant, but totally in character - he ensured that each instance represented Ashley’s unique, sometimes effective, way of dealing with life’s unplanned annoyances.
So convincing were these skirmishes that it was practically impossible to tell they weren’t intentional. Griffith deserves credit for so completely uniting the factual and fictitious, but Mitchell has hardly done worse by keeping The Boys Upstairs so funny, so smart, and so recognizably real that it seems like these friends could - and should - just as easily be friends of yours.
The Boys Upstairs