REVIEW BY MICHAEL MUSTO | Mart Crowley’s landmark 1968 play The Boys in the Band brought a group of gay friends together for a bitchy and fun NYC birthday party, which is rocked when an unexpected visitor arrives after having had some kind of flareup with his wife.
That the visitor turns out to be hiding some sexuality issues and ends up getting violent against the party’s most flamboyant attendee always signaled to me that the play comes off as a stinging condemnation of the closet. What’s more, the balding, tortured party host, Michael, has a few drinks himself and forces the guests to each call “the one person we truly believe we have loved.” This challenge proves alternately traumatic and redeeming for the guests, and though it’s a shattering idea for a time when gayness was hush-hush in public, it also has the potential for catharsis and personal liberation.
The LGBTQ community has been embarrassed about the play’s self-loathing issues, on and off, for years, though a smart takeaway is that the characters have formed a family (however imperfect) and are bravely carrying on despite massive oppression from outside and within.
The play arrived a year before Stonewall, and the 1970 William Friedkin-directed movie version came a year after, so Crowley’s work bookended the pivotal event in the modern queer movement. That movie retained the original cast, many of whom weren’t just acting at being gay at a tricky time—they were living the parts, and, as a result, delivered campy yet searing turns in those roles.
The 2018 Broadway revival, directed by Joe Mantello, put a new spin on the Boys by casting out and well-known gay actors, so perhaps more acting was required for them to dig into the pain. That production was powerful and managed to take the sting out of the play’s controversial nature by making things more now and accessible. And the new Netflix adaptation—also directed by Mantello, with the same actors and a script assist by Ned Martel—also does the play justice, while adding some tweaks. [It premieres on Wednesday, September 30.] Except for the music (a group dance to Heat Wave, as in the original), rotary phones, and cars, the movie doesn’t aim for complete period specificity. It seems to be saying that this group of gays and their happy/tragic party could be happening at any time.
There are also some devices used to open the play up a bit and give it air. Added are some quick shots of the disapproving straight couple next door, to remind you of what’s out there. The more modern phrase “See you next Tuesday” is interjected, even though some “c word” remarks already precede it. Most significantly, when the guys talk about their secret loves, flashback footage is interpolated, showing naked guys swimming, high school girls gossiping, and a quickie of the sexually hyperactive Donald (Matt Bomer) and Larry (Andrew Rannells) having sex standing up.
What’s more, the flirtation that led to the once-married Hank’s bathroom sex with a man is shown as Hank (Tuc Watkins) describes his first gay encounter. At first, I found some of these touches a bit jarring, but I get it, and have to say that otherwise, things are properly constrained and claustrophobic.
Jim Parsons makes Michael even angrier than the original—all snippy and wound-up. Having given up booze and smoking, this Michael banters with his best friend Donald (a lovely Bomer) until he starts drinking again and seethes with a prissy rage. But this time around, I saw better that Alan (the closet case who hits Emory) is the catalyst that prompts Michael to explode and force the phone game on his guests. Michael hates Alan’s equivocating and is desperate for some realness, no matter how harsh. He is furious that gays can be mean to each other, even if he might not see his own occasional role in that.
Tuc Watkins and Brian Hutchison (who plays the angsty Alan) look very similar, which totally works because Hank and Alan are basically the same person and even both wear ties (Hank sports a necktie and Alan a more formal bow tie). The only difference is that Hank left his wife for the love of his life, i.e., the frisky Larry, whereas Alan loved a guy, but is ultimately staying with the wife despite all the problems. The two men bond, Alan favoring Hank because he’s clearly the butchest of the bunch and is even physically attractive to him, as he dares to admit over some hard booze.
As the acidic birthday boy Harold, played to the hilt by the brilliant Leonard Frey in the original, Zach Quinto does better in closeup than on Broadway. Here, you can see the character’s self-inflicted pockmarks, and Quinto enters with lacerating style, though eventually, Harold unnecessarily fades due to a more potheaded, benign approach.
The best performance, as in the Broadway production, comes from the inventive Robin DeJesus as the unapologetically flaming Emory, a/k/a “Connie Casserole.” Having Emory be Hispanic adds extra pathos when his black buddy Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) declares, “We both got the short end of the stick.” It seems like Bernard is commenting on their ethnicity, and where it lands them on society‘s hierarchy.
It’s also touching when Emory apologizes to Bernard for “Uncle Tomming” him all the time, promising that he won’t make those kinds of jokes again. I guess fear of “cancel culture” is nothing new.
But anyone who knows the play is aware that the characters’ growing politeness only goes to a certain point. They all make merciless fun of the dim-witted Cowboy (Charlie Carver)—Emory’s studly birthday gift to Harold—showing that these guys can turn their own oppression inwards and create a pecking order of fabulousness that gives them power over certain other gays.
The pacing slows a bit and the crackling wisecracks turn to tears, and at the end, they’ve added Parsons wandering through the streets as they keep cutting to shots of the other characters and what they’re up to (again, opening up).
I knew Crowley, and wish I had asked him what Michael wrote in his birthday card to Harold, which is never revealed. I also wish he could have lived to see the release of this fine film, which is a worthy contemporary companion piece to the gold-standard Friedkin version.
Follow Michael Musto on Twitter, via @mikeymusto.
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