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Mart Crowley, ‘Boys in the Band’ Playwright, Dies at 84


Mart Crowley, whose 1968 play, “The Boys in the Band,” put gay characters and their stories front and center in a way that had rarely been seen in a mainstream New York theater, died on Saturday night in Manhattan. He was 84.

His friend the actress Natasha Gregson Wagner said the cause was complications of heart surgery.

Where previous plays and movies often tiptoed around a character’s homosexuality or, worse, demonized gay characters, Mr. Crowley’s play presented gay men talking forthrightly and in depth about their lives. It featured nine men at a birthday party in which alcohol flowed and conversation grew brutally honest as a result.

“The power of the play,” Clive Barnes wrote in his review in The New York Times, “is the way in which it remorselessly peels away the pretensions of its characters and reveals a pessimism so uncompromising in its honesty that it becomes in itself an affirmation of life.”

The play, opening more than a year before the Stonewall Inn uprising in Greenwich Village, a catalyst of the gay-rights movement, gave new visibility to the world it depicted, with the show drawing both gay and straight audience members, including high-profile ones like Jacqueline Kennedy and Mayor John V. Lindsay. Staged at Theater Four on West 55th Street in Manhattan, it ran for more than two years and more than 1,000 performances.

Fifty years later, the play finally made it to Broadway, in a revival directed by Joe Mantello and with a cast that included Zachary Quinto. The production won the Tony Award for best revival.

“I think that was the highlight of his life,” the actor Robert Wagner, Ms. Gregson Wagner’s stepfather and Mr. Crowley’s longtime friend, said in a phone interview.

Although groundbreaking, “The Boys in the Band,” which was made into a movie directed by William Friedkin in 1970, was not universally embraced. With the gay-rights movement evolving quickly and vocally even as the play was still in the midst of its initial run, some critics attacked it as presenting an image of gay men that was unflattering and full of self-loathing.

“I went to see ‘Boys in the Band’ several times,” Edward Albee said in the documentary “Making the Boys” (2011) by Crayton Robey, “and more and more I saw an audience there of straights, who were so happy to be able to see people they didn’t have to respect.”

Yet over time it has come to be seen as pivotal to opening up dialogue.

“The people who criticize the play,” Mr. Mantello told The Times in 2018, “have the luxury to do so because of the play.”

Edward Martino Crowley was born on Aug. 21, 1935, in Vicksburg, Miss. His father, he said later, was an alcoholic, and his mother was a drug addict.

“I always resented that Eugene O’Neill already had my best plots,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2002.

He attended an all-boys Roman Catholic high school and graduated from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1957 with a degree in theater. While there he designed a production of a stage adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” whose cast included Jon Voight, a fellow student.

Mr. Crowley went to New York and was hired as an assistant by the director Elia Kazan. Kazan was filming “Splendor in the Grass,” and Mr. Crowley befriended one of its stars, Natalie Wood (Ms. Gregson Wagner’s mother). When she was cast in the film version of “West Side Story,” Ms. Wood — who was twice married to Mr. Wagner — hired Mr. Crowley as her personal assistant.

In 1966, the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote a provocative essay in The New York Times pointing out that although many leading playwrights were gay, their drama did not address their world directly.

“In society the homosexual’s life must be discreetly concealed,” he wrote. “As material for drama, that life must be even more intensely concealed.”

Mr. Crowley, who had dabbled unsuccessfully in television writing, was among those struck by the essay’s call for more open playwriting.

“Kauffman’s article was, ‘Isn’t it about time that one of these homosexual writers writes a play that’s openly about his own experience?’” he said in a 2013 interview on the television program “Theater Talk.” “And I thought that was a very, very good point.”

Mr. Crowley wrote “The Boys in the Band” in five weeks while house-sitting for the actress Diana Lynn. It was his first play. The New York production spawned productions in England and elsewhere.

“I ran around the world on ‘Boys in the Band’ money,” he told The Washington Times in 1993.

Mr. Crowley wrote several other plays, including “The Men From the Boys,” which looked in on the apartment and some of the characters from “The Boys in the Band” 30 years later.

Another Crowley drama, “For Reasons That Remain Unclear,” involved an encounter between a priest and a younger man who share an unsettling past.

“The play has its hard nugget of truth,” Lloyd Rose wrote in a review in The Washington Post when the play was staged at the Olney Theater in Maryland in 1993. “Crowley is more honest, and wiser about human nature, than many playwrights with more obvious and accessible writing skills.”

Mr. Crowley leaves no immediate survivors.

In 2010, when “The Boys in the Band” was being revived by the Transport Group Off Broadway, several playwrights spoke of the work’s influence on them. Larry Kramer had seen the play both in New York and in London.

“It was the London one that was life-changing in a way for me,” he said, “because it showed me as a writer, as a gay person, as a gay writer, what was possible to do in the commercial theater. The theater in London was packed, and people loved the play and gave it a standing ovation.”

Mr. Wagner, in the phone interview, said simply of his longtime friend, “He was his own man at a time when it was really, really difficult.”

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