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Gifted ensemble can't overcome dated quality of 'The Boys Upstairs'

Many stories have been told of the triumphs earned and tribulations endured by the LGBTQ community over the last 50 years, when queer and trans women of color led the revolt at Stonewall and ignited a civil rights movement. Stories of persistence, of grandeur, of prideful celebration and shameful degradation. Stories of murder and silence, of ignorance and bliss.

For more than half of that time, we’ve been lucky, here in Buffalo, to hear those stories told by BUA, the Buffalo United Artists. I came out and up in a snow globe of these stories, each one informing me of how and why I might live openly as a gay man. Part celebration, part history lesson, part tutorial, BUA’s plays have always offered a nightlight for my queerness.

I’m thinking about this as I contemplate “The Boys Upstairs,” BUA’s latest, on stage at the Alleyway Theatre. My instinct through much of Jason Mitchell’s comedy, about gay best friends navigating their upwardly mobile young adult lives in a sexually revolving Hell’s Kitchen, is that this is not my story. Fair enough; we learn from difference, not every play creeps inside the same.

At first it seemed frivolous, the exploits of three canned stereotypes playing out exactly as I had suspected they would. These aren’t my people, I thought. This isn’t (cough) my generation. And these aren’t exactly our times – even a throwaway joke about Barney’s is now out of date, as of last week’s news. (To be fair “our times” seem to refresh every six days, so who knows?)

Josh, the trust-fund baby desperately searching for validation online as a professional influencer; Seth, the school teacher ready to move in with a monogamous boyfriend; and Ashley, the butterfly whose random drunk hookups are retold through the branding of his Southern charm.

Ordinary gay (mostly white) guys in the 2010s, I assure you. Boring, but not unentertaining either. This ensemble performs wonderfully together, which is more of a needed distraction.

Jonathan Beckner is the stalwart leader, cradling Josh’s desire of brand names into his neuroses about success. Jeremy Catania rigidly captures Seth’s desire for tradition, an instinct some in the audience will recognize, perhaps longingly, in this era of open relationships and digital dating. And Daniel Torres, making a splashy entrance in a sequined top that nearly blinded me in the light’s reflection, is scrumptious as Ashley, a queer-positive queen anyone would be lucky to have.

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In a variety of small roles, Ricky Needham is most versatile – especially in his face-grabbing, sweat-inducing, scene-stealing, worth-the-ticket-price monologue as a ravenous musical theater actor. Give him prize money, please.

On the second weekend of performances, everyone appeared eased into their rhythms as an ensemble. They make the most out of Sullivan’s imbalanced dialogue — their quips are stronger than their reflections.

But most challenging is the small and effervescent role of Eric, the boys’ hot, seemingly straight neighbor. Zachary Bellus is strong and steady here, but the trope where the gay guys try to seduce a hot straight friend (who, surprise, isn’t straight, just macho) is boring and I believe, in 2019, sophomoric. 

This is where my suspicions about the plot are confirmed: another story on which gay success is framed by sexual conquest and happy pending. Yes, we must be exposed to slices of all lives – inscribing our narratives to the public record is an important aspect of our storytelling. But where among these stories do we create space for new models of aspiration, for ideals that don’t attach like barnacles to brand names and promising capitalism, but for ideas and dreams and new connections. 

I’m getting anxious for the next wave of visionaries to weave us portraits of lives we do not yet understand, souls with which we have yet to fall in love. They’re out there somewhere, just not up these stairs.

THEATER REVIEW

"The Boys Upstairs" by Buffalo United Artists

2.5 stars (out of four)

Through Nov. 23 at Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley. Performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $25-20. (box office, 886-9239, buffalounitedartists.org).

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