Bitches' brew

There was a recent Dallas Morning News profile of a long-term lesbian couple intending to fly off and get hitched in Vermont, which has become the first state to grant homosexuals almost the same marital rights as heterosexuals. Included in the story, somewhat obtrusively, were the war-hero status of one of the women's fathers, the fact that she flies Old Glory every Memorial Day, and that she gets "chills" every time she hears "The Star-Spangled Banner."

This was, mind you, not a story about renewed debate over the American military's disastrous "don't ask, don't tell" policy. I'm in no position to doubt this woman's sincerity, but my question after reading the piece was: Don't flag-burning communist insurrectionist lesbians deserve marital rights too? Let me be clear. After eons of vitriol and slander heaped on homosexuals by religion, science, and the state, the time has indeed come for a little P.R. reparation. You just can't help but snicker at the arm's-length résumé of virtues that are unfurled these days in news coverage of the gay and lesbian fight for equal social treatment. As the tide of history continues its inevitable turn and slowly lifts lavender fortunes, those so desperately seeking what they've been denied might eventually be stranded on the rocky lesson they forgot from witnessing their own parents' relationship -- ya know, that the right to marry often carries with it the right to be miserable as shit.

Miserable like Michael, that beacon of sarcasm and self-loathing at the center of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, currently enjoying a quite respectable revival by Fort Worth Theatre. Small companies across the country have been dusting off this pre-Stonewall document ever since it received a critically lauded, much-publicized return to New York stages several seasons back. For more than 25 years, Crowley's acidic look at a circle of gay friends throwing a birthday party for one of their own had been a model of counterproductive homo depictions. Heteros were presumed to be eavesdropping for all the evidence they could collect that would confirm the suspicion of the play's infamous line: "You show me a happy homosexual, and I'll show you a gay corpse." But viewing the show at the start of the new millennium, it's clear that gays had been too paranoid and straights blind to their own bone-filled closets.

Most of what causes the despair in The Boys in the Band -- unrequited love, unresolved family resentments, mismatched relationship expectations, having to hide your feelings because you fear someone else won't understand -- has nothing to do with homosexuality per se. It's just expressed in a certain gay dialect, with lots of uses of the word "Mary" and the feminine pronoun when addressing a man. Furthermore, you're a little stunned that Crowley was so many years ago stumping to change one perception that some people, straight and gay, still hold on to for dear life: Gay men can fuck, but they can't fall in love.

Fort Worth Theatre is a community theater that's been around since 1951, and if the word "community" makes you fear you'll have to indulge your friends and neighbors' thespian ambitions on a weekend night, don't sweat. The performances here do lack depth, but they are smooth and crisp, and the actors are usually expert at delivering a well-timed bitch-slap. The play's datedness makes these roles a little brittle and creaky -- these men's professions, their angst, their artful way with an insult, and their tendency to wear scarves tied around their necks all seem quaintly exotic in a world where lesbians get chills during the national anthem.

But if you reach back from cliché through stereotype and into unwritten subcultural rules, you will find the reason why people assumed all gay men were like that: That's how many of the men you could identify as gay were, at least in the '60s and '70s and, to a lesser extent, today (minus the neck scarves), because those were ways they could easily identify each other. Director Seth Johnston and his cast have wisely chosen to use clothing from the period, although in truth you could make some slight script alterations (believe it or not, most male homosexuals under 50 rarely make Judy Garland references these days) and set it in today's urban petri dish. But why make an effort to update a play that so perfectly recalls an era? Fort Worth Theatre sticks to a big-lapelled, flare-legged vision.

Watching The Boys in the Band, you'll barely be able to notice these characters' funky duds through their gleaming, chain-link armor of cruel wit. The best lines in Crowley's script are timeless and likely to be adopted by folks who have never seen a production or William Friedkin's 1969 film ("Am I stunning?" goes the question. "Yes. You look like shit. I'm absolutely stunned," comes the reply). Many of them are slung by Michael (Todd Camp), a bitter Catholic with an addiction to psychotherapy, siphoning off his family money, and traveling the world to try to take his mind off himself. He is the host for the birthday party of his friend Harold (Gary Payne), a self-described "pockmarked Jew fairy" who's constantly stoned and more than a little angry that he doesn't possess classical male beauty.

Also at the shindig are Michael's ex-lover Donald (Brian Keith Rhodes), who seems to be the wisest and healthiest of all of them; flaming queen Emory (Lon D. Barrera) and his equally flammable pal Bernard (Keith Smith), who is constantly goaded by Emory with offensive remarks about his black skin; and a new couple, promiscuous Larry (Lou Taylor) and faithful Hank (Jack Droitcourt), who has just left his wife. An evening's worth of dish is contaminated by the arrival of Alan (Alan McStravick), Michael's uptight, probably heterosexual, and very homophobic ex-college roommate, who arrives at the place in emotional tatters.

The centerpiece to the cruel, Albee-esque fun and games in The Boys in the Band is called "Affairs of the Heart," in which Michael pressures everyone to phone the one person they've ever really loved and tell him. It's ostensibly to punish hetero Alan and force him to make a revelation about his past, but the gay partygoers here find themselves drawn into the days before amyl nitrate, bath houses, and bars to young men who broke their hearts. People often focus on the mean-spirited, self-hating bitchery in Crowley's script, but these tenderly expressed memories are his real achievement. They humanize the hateful Alan's original assessment of them as "freaks." They cut directly to the soul of gay love, and, finally, love itself. Social acceptance wouldn't ensure that these romances would've lasted forever, but they would lend the participants a measure of self-respect. That would be a big start.

Sentiment aside, I think Michael deserves to be a poster boy for gay marital rights, if only to remind us of the potential pitfalls of that institution. Given the opportunity to wed, he would now be free to confuse a piece of paper for emotional commitment and security. Those husbands choosing not to tolerate his viperish tongue and whiny immaturity would have to go through the court system before they could make a clean break. Michael's serial nuptials would give new meaning to that old appellation "the gay divorcée" -- the alimony payments would eventually exceed his monthly liquor bill. He would, in short, be a lot like some heterosexuals you may know.