Provocative though Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band’’ was when it premiered onstage in 1968 (and on film two years later), the playwright actually hewed to old-fashioned conventions of melodrama, especially the one that requires a lead character to come face-to-face with the capital-t Truth about himself.
In this case, that character is named Michael, the outward picture of confidence during a boozy evening of repartee and revelations among a group of gay friends in his New York apartment. An increasingly hostile and bullying Michael, portrayed by Victor L. Shopov, devises a little game designed to force the others to reveal themselves to themselves.
As you watch David J. Miller’s fine production of “The Boys in the Band’’ at Zeitgeist Stage Company, you’re mindful that it probably wouldn’t be safe during that era for these men to be who they are outside the doors of Michael’s apartment. Crowley’s comic drama is flawed and sometimes contrived, but he dealt directly and forthrightly with gay life at a time when very few other writers did so. As such, his play stands as a significant cultural marker on the path to where we stand today, nearly half a century later, just a few months after the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal across the nation.
It was perhaps unwise for Crowley to invoke Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams in his script, since that invites unflattering comparisons, especially with Albee’s lacerating masterwork of drama-as-psychological-X-ray, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ But on its own more facile terms “The Boys in the Band’’ still has plenty to say to us, especially about the ways gay people have historically been taught to hate themselves. Director Miller builds the necessary mood of claustrophobia, so we sense the degree to which these men feel trapped.
The occasion is a birthday party for the late-to-arrive Harold. He’s turning 45, an unwelcome milestone for a guy prone to fretting about his looks and his age. Harold is portrayed by none other than Ryan Landry, the inspired impresario of the Gold Dust Orphans. Landry is attired in a pair of aviator-style eyeglasses as outsize as his personality, and his masterful comic timing is very much intact as he delivers some of the play’s funniest lines. But Landry’s larger-than-life presence does not unduly tip the balance of the solid ensemble assembled by Miller; rather, it fits with the character of Harold, a blunt truth-teller who is among the very few on hand not cowed by Michael.
The others at the party include the bookish Donald (Diego Buscaglia); the talkative and flamboyant yet easily wounded Emory (Mikey DiLoreto, excellent); Bernard (Damon Singletary), who works in the New York Public Library and is the only African-American member of the group; Larry (Gene Dante), who is unwilling to be monogamous with his lover, Hank (Bob Mussett), formerly married to a woman; and a young prostitute, referred to as Cowboy (Richard Wingert), who represents a birthday present for Harold.
The wild card is Alan (Brooks Reeves), Michael’s former college roommate, ostensibly straight, but with an aura of sexual ambiguity about him. Having called Michael to say he has something important to tell him, Alan shows up at the apartment, where his presence adds a combustible element to an already tense gathering.
The action unfolds on a set that has been designed by Miller with his usual fastidious attention to detail, right down to the 1968 copy of Life magazine, with Jane Fonda on the cover, that rests on Michael’s coffee table, near a green leather couch. A film buff, Michael has adorned his apartment with old movie posters: “Reefer Madness,’’ “Shall We Dance,’’ and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ with Audrey Hepburn in that famous black gown. One shelf contains a stack of albums, including one by Robert Goulet; another shelf features “Peanuts’’ figurines.
Shopov’s Michael is compellingly conflicted. The actor has supplied the dramatic motor for numerous Zeitgeist productions — among them “Bent,’’ “The Normal Heart,’’ “Enron,’’ and “Farragut North’’ — and he does so again with “The Boys in the Band,’’ where Shopov brings a genuine edge of danger to Michael’s free-floating malice. He conveys the laser-like but selective acuity of a man who seems able to home in on everyone’s evasions and self-deceptions but his own.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND
Play by Mart Crowley. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through
Oct. 3. Tickets $35-$40, 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.