Michael, a guilt-ridden, thirty-year-old homosexual whose sole purpose in life is to avoid his feelings. When unable to cope on a daily basis, he escapes into characterizations of past female screen stars. If reality becomes more threatening, he takes a jet to some distant location, then spends extravagant sums of money he does not have. Until recently, alcohol had been another escape. After selling one unproduced screenplay, he gave up writing. Because he does not have any other source of income, he spends most of his time avoiding creditors. Michael backslides to the bottle when the all-male birthday party he is throwing for his friend Harold is crashed by Alan, his former Georgetown University roommate who is straight and not aware of Michael’s homosexuality. Michael’s hostility increases, to the point at which he invents an insidious emotional game designed to hurt and demoralize his guests.
Donald, a responsible, hardworking gay man who scrubs floors for a living. At the age of twenty-eight, he views his life as a failure and is committed to therapy. He is an intelligent man and an avid reader. At the birthday party, it is revealed that he had a one-night stand at a bathhouse with Hank’s lover Larry.
Hank, a math teacher in superb athletic condition. Thirty-two-year-old Hank has left his wife and children for a relationship with Larry. Deeply in love, he is frustrated by Larry’s unwillingness to be faithful. This tension prompts continuous barbs between the two. Hank becomes the only gay man with whom the straight Alan can relate.
Larry, a commercial artist and Hank’s twenty-nine-year-old lover. He has a strong sexual appetite and, even though he confesses during Michael’s game to loving Hank more than anyone else, he still cannot promise to be monogamous in their relationship. Although he becomes jealous of the attention that Alan is giving to Hank, he continues to flirt with Donald.
Emory, an effeminate, campy interior decorator. The small, frail thirty-three-year-old is a somewhat pathetic character. Shunned by mainstream society, he has found a friend in a member of another minority—Bernard, the black man whom he incessantly derides.
Bernard, an employee of the library’s circulation department. Although he has experienced prejudice because he is black as well as gay, he feels more fortunate than the flagrantly effeminate Emory. That is why he allows Emory—and only Emory—to belittle him at times. As proud as Bernard is, Michael manages to humiliate him during his game. He coaxes Bernard into telephoning a white man whom Bernard has loved since the time he and his mother worked for the man’s family, when the man was only a boy.
Harold, an unattractive, gay Jewish man. Harold is thirty-two years old, and it is his birthday being celebrated. He is obsessed with his lack of good looks, poor complexion, and fleeting youth. Harold arrives at the party late and intoxicated. He receives a beautiful but moronic male hustler as a gift from Emory.
Alan, a thirty-year-old lawyer with a wife and two daughters. Although Alan is Michael’s former roommate from Georgetown University, he is unaware of Michael’s homosexuality. When he arrives at the party uninvited, he discovers that he is the only heterosexual present. Someone as effete as Emory is repulsive to him, and Alan physically attacks him. During the game in which he is compelled to participate, Michael tries to extract a homosexual confession from him. Instead, Alan calls his wife and pledges his love to her.
Cowboy, a muscular, good-looking, and vacuous twenty-two-year-old hustler. He is Emory’s twenty-dollar birthday present to...
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Bernard Bernard is the one African American in the group. He has a small part in the play until the end when Michael initiates the Affairs of the Heart game. Encouraged to phone someone he loves and tell him that he loves him, Bernard chooses to phone Peter Dahlbeck, the son in the household where his mother worked as a domestic. Once, when they were drunk, Peter and Bernard were intimate with each other in the pool house, but they never spoke of it again. When Peter’s mother answers and says that he is off on a date, Bernard spends the rest of the play angry at himself for having been so stupid as to have phoned.
Cowboy The Cowboy is a handsome young man dressed in a cowboy outfit, hired for twenty dollars to sing ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ to Harold and spend the night with him. Unfortunately, he shows up early, before Harold arrives. He wants to get home early and get to bed because he hurt his heel while doing chinups. Throughout the play, he asks naïve questions, unable to keep up with the witty banter of the rest of the group. He leaves with Harold in the end.
Donald Donald does not really know the other party guests well. He is a friend of Michael’s. He lives outsude of New York, in a rented room in the Hamptons, where he has worked scrubbing floors since he dropped out of college. Donald comes to town on Saturday nights to see his psychiatrist, and then he stays at Michael’s apartment.
Emory Emory is the joker of the group and the most flamboyantly gay. He is always referring to himself and to the others as ‘‘girls’’ or ‘‘Mary.’’ He is the one who made most of the food for the party. It is his light, whimsical, girlish attitude that infuriates Alan, leading him to punch Emory at the end of the first act. During the game at the end of the play, Emory chooses to phone Delbert Botts, an older boy whom he had a crush on in junior high school and high school. Emory once embarrassed himself, begging Delbert to be his friend and buying him an expensive present, only to find out at the senior prom that Delbert had been laughing about him to others and was engaged to be married.
Hank Hank left his wife and two children to live with Larry. He is a schoolteacher. Alan, noticing the wedding ring on Hank’s hand, feels close to him, raising the possibility that Alan’s attraction is not erotic but is because he identifies with Hank as the only other heterosexual in the room. In act 2, when Alan is feeling sick, Hank stays with him offstage. At the end of the play, when it is his time to phone the person that he loves most, Hank phones Larry, even though he knows that Larry has a difficult time committing himself to just one man.
Harold It is Harold’s birthday, and he is the last character to arrive, at the very end of the first act. He is a former ice skater. Harold copes with the depression and self-loathing that he feels by taking drugs: when he arrives, Michael mentions his being late and high on marijuana, and he explains, bitterly, ‘‘What I am, Michael, is a thirty-two year old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.’’ Later, commenting on the issue of beauty, he mentions his soul and notes, ‘‘if I could, I’d sell it in a flash for some skin-deep, transitory, meaningless beauty.’’ Michael announces to the group that Harold is hoarding depressant drugs so that he can commit suicide before becoming old, a claim Harold does not deny. The Cowboy, who is beautiful and almost completely devoid of any intellect whatsoever, is attractive to Harold.
Larry Larry is a commercial artist. He has had an affair with Donald in the past, although it was impersonal: they had sex but never even learned each other’s names. As Larry explains it, ‘‘We haven’t exactly met, but we’ve . . . Seen . . . each other before.’’ Although he lives with Hank, Larry is reluctant to commit to a monogamous relationship, feeling that such a thing is unrealistic.
Alan McCarthy Alan is an old college roommate of Michael’s. Alan did not know that Michael was gay when they were in college, so Michael tries to keep it from him. Throughout the play there are several strong hints that Alan has homosexual feelings that he is trying to suppress. Alan is crying when he phones, asking to come over. Michael is afraid that Alan will find out that he is gay, a secret that is lost when Alan enters the apartment to find all of the men dancing together. Alan bonds with Hank after noticing the wedding ring on his finger and stays around him during much of the play, telling Michael when they are alone, ‘‘That Hank is really a very attractive fellow.’’ After a few drinks, Alan becomes enraged at Emory and lunges at him, shouting, ‘‘I’ll kill you, you . . . little mincing swish. You . . . freak. FREAK! FREAK!’’ Late in the second act, Michael insists that Alan call Justin Stuart, a man who had a gay affair with Alan in college. It seems that he is acknowledging his homosexuality when he phones and says ‘‘I love you,’’ but when Michael takes the phone, he finds out that Alan has called his wife and committed himself to his heterosexual relationship.
Michael The play takes place at Michael’s apartment. Michael is a writer who has sold a screenplay that was never produced. For the most part, he travels the world, running up bills and getting other people to pay them. He is aging, losing his hair (a fact that is commented on several times throughout the play), and seeing a therapist to help him deal with the selfhatred that he feels about his lifestyle. He is well versed in cinema history and has a movie reference for just about every occasion. Early on, he explains to Donald that he has quit drinking and smoking because he is unable to ‘‘get through that morningafter ick attack’’ when he realizes the things that he has said and done the night before while drinking. Later, after the hostility between Emory and Alan subsides, Michael starts drinking again. His behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and offensive. He eventually makes up a ‘‘party game’’ that is meant to humiliate all of the guests. In the end, in a reversal of the first scene, Michael leaves his own apartment, intending to go over to midnight mass at the Catholic church.