BOTTOM LINE: A fairly standard gay play (which means light and superficial). It's good for a laugh or two, but all the more disappointing because it tries (and fails) to be so much more.
As a 31-year old gay man living in Hell’s Kitchen, I would seem to be the ideal target for The Boys Upstairs (a play about a group of gay guys, all in their mid 20s to early 30s, living in Hell’s Kitchen). And while it isn’t fair to expect that a light gay comedy will portray life as it is, I still wish that The Boys Upstairs had shown me, in some way, a bit more of the heart and soul of the life I know. Because while the writing is often funny, the play as a whole left me cold.
The Boys Upstairs takes place in the midtown apartment of two roommates, Josh and Seth. Their good friend Ashley basically lives there as well, since his real apartment is so far uptown he often crashes on the couch, along with whatever trick he has found for the evening. At the beginning of the play a new guy, Eric, has moved in downstairs (thus the title). He’s attractive, and appears to be straight, so all three guys instantly fall in lust with him. Throughout the play Josh (ostensibly the main character) tries to deal with Seth’s boyfriend (who he doesn’t like), with Ashley’s parade of men, and with his own insecurities and relationship hang-ups. And of course, since this is a gay living room comedy, all of this takes place amidst a plethora of cocktails and morning-after stories.
I’m all for fabulousity - I love a great cocktail and a night out with the boys. The trouble is, as much as this team claims (in their production notes) that this play is about something serious and meaningful, it really isn’t. I didn’t care about any of the characters. Any 20 or 30-something living in Manhattan will tell you that finances are a huge concern. So how could I care about Josh, a trust fund kid who can afford to let his friend live with him for a tiny portion of the rent? Why didn’t playwright Jason Mitchell write about two guys who couldn’t go out every night, and couldn’t order in breakfast, or takes cabs to go shopping, or jet off to some Caribbean island? Wouldn’t this struggle have been more interesting?
This critique aside, The Boys Upstairs aims to be a play about friendship. But I didn’t see any friendship on stage. I saw people who had fun together, but that isn’t friendship. Friendship may occur amidst cocktails and quips, but it isn’t limited to them. Since I didn’t buy the friendship of Josh, Seth, and Ashley, everything they did ultimately seemed shallow. Late in the play, Ashley does something upsetting to Josh. But this “event” (I’m being vague on purpose) is all resolved way too quickly. Another thing that really bothered me was the series of questions Josh twitters during the scene changes, which seem to be Mitchell’s way of telling the audience what he wants them to take away from his play. This device is so obvious and heavy-handed that I cringed every time a scene ended, in preparation for what was to come.
There are many good things about The Boys Upstairs (a show that has a good chance of getting in the Fringe Encores series, which may be the only way to see it, as the two remaining shows are sold out). The five guys in the cast are all attractive (an important thing in this kind of play), and all are good actors. I especially liked Kristen-Alexzander Griffith as Ashley, the most outlandish of the three friends. Ashley could have easily been a clichéd, one-note character; to Griffith’s credit, Ashley was actually the deepest character in the play. He’s much more Emmett from Queer as Folk than Jack from Will and Grace, even though Ashley is the most flamboyant, has the funniest lines, and does the most outlandish things, there is actually a real person there. Also good is David A. Rudd, who plays all of the boyfriends, dates, and tricks; my favorite was a Don’t Tell Mama employee who hilariously speaks in showtune-ese for his entire scene. Josh Segarra was cute, likeable, and fairly believable as the somewhat unbelievably hard-to-read Eric. Less appealing were Nic Cory as Josh and Joel T. Bauer as Seth. It isn’t that they were bad, they just didn’t compensate for the superficialities of the script the way that Griffith did.
It may be that ironically, I am actually not the appropriate audience for this kind of show: many audience members seemed to be twenty years older than the boys onstage, and there were certainly lots of laughs. To be fair, there were more than a few lines that made me laugh out loud, and I was never bored. Certainly, this seems to be a crowd-pleasing show, and although I wasn’t satisfied, I can certainly see how many others will laugh a lot and enjoy their time with The Boys Upstairs.
(The Boys Upstairs plays at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street between Varick and 6th Avenue. The show is approximately 1 hour 35 minutes long. Performances are Thursday 8/27 at 5 pm and Friday 8/28 at 7 pm. For tickets and show info visit TheBoysUpstairs.info and for more FringeNYC info visit fringenyc.org.)