PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mart Crowley

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mart Crowley Few modern plays enjoy a life beyond the time period in which they debut. Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, a period piece, has lived on.
Mart Crowley
Mart Crowley Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Since it bowed Off-Broadway in 1968, the ground-breaking play about a poisonous birthday party held for a gay man and attended by his gay friends, has not fallen out of the public eye. It's been made into a film, been revived Off-Broadway every decade or so, produced around the country and the world, fallen out of favor and fallen in favor. But it has never stopped being talked about or studied. This has kept the name of its author, Mart Crowley, alive. Crowley is now enjoying the latest version of his signature work, an environmental production in which the audience sits among the various party guests. The Transport Group production has been extended to March 28. Crowley talked to Playbill.com about the play that people have been talking to him about for 42 years.

Playbill.com: Hello, Mart.
Mart Crowley: Hello. And you got the name right! That's so rare. I get Mark or Matt. I get letters addressed to Mary, if you can believe it. They get "M-A-R" and then the last letter is always wrong.

Playbill.com: Is it short for Martin?
MC: Actually, it's Martin in Italian. My father's best friend was named Martino and my middle name is Martino. It's Edward Martino. Which is generally what I have to use since 9/11. It's on my driver's license and passport that way. So people are quite confused. But Mart is the professional name. Joan Didion once said to me, "I don't know why you didn't use Martino. It's your real name and it's a hell of a lot more theatrical and easier to spell than Mart." She was right.

Playbill.com: I imagine you've seen a lot of production of The Boys in the Band over the years.
MC: Oh, what makes you say that!

Playbill.com: Have you seen anything like what they're doing now Off-Broadway?
MC: No. No. I've never seen anything like this one. Whatever these euphemisms are — site-specific, environmental — it's sort of in-the-round taken to the nth degree. You can reach out and touch the actors. Playbill.com: Have you found the staging changes the play at all?
MC: Well, I'm really not certain. It's so up-close and personal. When I was first told of this idea, I thought it's certainly never going to be a comedy, because if people can look ten feet away and look at the eyes of other paying customers, they're not going to laugh particularly at the subversive lines in the play, of which there are many. I felt the comedy was going to be reduced to oblivion. I was worried about that, because for me you can't get anything across unless you do it with some humor. But that mercifully has not turned out to be the truth. People are still laughing at the jokes. I'm glad they've stood up over 40 years.

Playbill.com: Have you ever been surprised by the durability of the play?
MC: Well, I'd have to say yes. But it's gone so in and out of favor, as you well know.

Playbill.com: But never entirely forgotten.
MC: (Laughs) Well, that's true. I've never lived it down, one way or another. (Laughs)

Playbill.com: They actually made a documentary about it last year.
MC: Oh my Gosh. There is a wonderful documentary called "Making the Boys" and it opened at the Berlin Film Festival in February. It hasn't been released yet. When it was as the Tribeca Film Festival last year, it was a work in progress. There were several interviews that they had not been able to get yet. Which they have been able to achieve since, namely Tony Kushner and William Friedkin, who directed the film. That was the icing on the cake, because the film is very well represented by the theatrical community, particularly the writers, the gay playwrights, everyone from Albee to McNally to Rudnick to Larry Kramer.

Playbill.com: Robert Wagner is in the film, too. You've worked with him steadily over the years, on "Hart to Hart" and such. Have you remained in touch?
MC: Oh, we're very close. They're [Wagner and his wife] coming to New York next week. They're coming to see the play.

Playbill.com: I read that he and his then wife Natalie Wood helped you, financially, so you were able to write Boys in the Band
MC: They had been married when I first met them. I was a production assistant to Elia Kazan on "Splendor on the Grass." That is how I met Natalie Wood. They were married at that time. A year or so later they got divorced. They eventually got married a second time. When the play was written, they were, in fact, engaged to other people, whom they married and had children with. But Natalie did help me out when I was writing the play. When I finished the play, I was very down and out. And my career, such as it had been up to that point, had been nothing but sputtering failure. I had sold a screenplay to 20th Century Fox and written a pilot that was shot but didn't get sold, and I got fired off an original movie at Paramount. So I was sort of dropped by agents and given up for dead. My career was going nowhere. I really didn't have any money. I house-sat in Beverly Hills for a very wealthy friend, the actress Diana Lynn. I had to do something with my time. So I wrote this play.

Playbill.com: Boys is sort of a double-edged sword. It's done all the time, and that's a great thing for a playwright. But it also overshadows everything else you've ever written. How do you feel about that?
MC: I think what you've just said is the total truth. I've been fortunate to live long enough that my entire body of work that was produced, which is six full-length plays, was published last Christmastime. There's Boys and then there's five more. The one right after Boys was such a disaster and it took me some time to get myself back together after that. The third play was very well received by Walter Kerr of the The New York Times and John Simon at New York Magazine. It got good reviews but it wasn't the kind of play that the public expected of me. It was a memory play of my family called A Breeze from the Gulf. It got good notices and did no business. It never has been revived. I have hopes for it. I also have hopes for a play I wrote about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I was raised a Catholic and went to Catholic schools all my life. And, alas, I was one of those kids who had an encounter or two with the clergy. And I wrote about it. But I wrote about it too soon. The scandal had not hit, and the reaction to the play was one of outrage. Timing is everything. The Boys in the Band was perfect timing. I couldn't have planned it. Somebody was going to write their version of this play. I got there first just by accident. It's no good to be ahead of your time. You have to be right on the money or else, no dice.

Mart Crowley (second from left) with the cast of <i>The Boys in the Band</i>.
Mart Crowley (second from left) with the cast of The Boys in the Band. Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN