ORLANDO — The plot set-up for “Party,” the play now being performed at the Footlight Theatre in Orlando, feels familiar at first, vaguely similar to one of the earlier gay-themed plays, Mart Crowley’s “The Boys In The Band.”
Set in the apartment of gay roommates Kevin and Peter, there are drinks, chips and card games awaiting five friends who are coming over that night for a party.
As the play goes along, memories of “Boys in the Band” quickly start to fade — and it becomes abundantly clear how much has changed since 1968, when Crowley’s play was first performed Off-Broadway.
In that play, when a group of gay friends — and one straight man — gather for a birthday party, the snappy quips and clever one-liners eventually give way to a steady stream of revelations about how much some of the characters absolutely hate being gay and what it means to live in a homophobic society — so much so, that the play can seem difficult for modern gay audiences, and has been dubbed an example of “self-homophobia.” Whatever Crowley’s original intentions were, there were few if any discussions about gay liberation in that play.
“Party,” which was written and directed by David Dillon, doesn’t dabble in culture war politics, and the play is that much more entertaining as a result. This is about seven good friends who truly like one another, and have a grand old time playing a card game where they select a card that will either say “Fact,” “Fiction,” or “Fantasy.” Then they’re asked to admit something about themselves, or engage in a fantasy chosen by one of the others. Like “Boys in the Band,” it could have been a set-up for the characters’ deep-seated and barely concealed animosity toward one another to turn the night into a vicious, back-stabbing row. Happily, it goes in another direction.
The play, which runs for an hour and 45 minutes without intermission, sets out to have fun and succeeds wildly, thanks to an exceptionally well-chosen cast that reminds us of the rich comedic talent readily available for a production like this one. As the friends gather and start taking shots of a mix of vodka and fruit punch, the early questions — what’s the most embarrassing thing to happen to you, or why Ray, easily the most catty of the bunch, chose to become a priest — are innocent enough. But as the drinks keep flowing, the guys get more into the game.
And again, in a reminder of how times have changed, in “Boys in the Band” the drinking brought out the bitterness and hostility in the characters. In “Party,” they all settle on one subject in particular: sex.
Soon anyone who gets a Fantasy card is asked to spend the rest of the evening in their underwear — or naked. Soon there are requests for someone to do jumping jacks naked, another grabs a can of whipped cream from the fridge, and so on. Not one of the guys is particularly shy about being asked to strip, and by the play’s end, there isn’t a stitch of clothes on the stage.
“Party,” though, is far more than an excuse to see the cast naked. Light and fun, the production is an ideal vehicle for some gifted comedic actors, most impressively Kevin Kelly, who plays the priest Ray, who definitely has more than rosary beads on his mind. Whether he’s tossing out a steady stream of funny quips, pretending to hurl when one of the guys describes a sexual encounter with a woman, or demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of gay theater history, Kelly’s comedic timing is a sheer joy to watch. He has some of his funniest scenes with Andy (played by Wes Miles), the youngest guy in the bunch, new to their parties. When Ray tosses out the name Barbra and Andy asks “Barbra who?”, Kelly’s reaction of shock and indignation is a scream.
Also a joy to watch is Justin Ortiz as Brian, the most flirtatious of the bunch, and the one most eager to ditch his clothes. The entire cast, though, is hilarious, and you get the feeling they’re having a grand time performing this one. In fact, if the card game theme of the show makes it sound a bit, well, naughty, it’s not, really. It’s about the bonding between good friends — and about how a party doesn’t have to be stuffy at all. It’s great fun to be invited in to watch.
“Party” has its final performance tonight at 7 p.m. at the theater at The Parliament House Resort at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail. To get tickets, log on to phouse.ticketleap.com.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..