The Boys in the Band, review: a zesty but dated revival of the LGBT Broadway classic
Dir: Joe Mantello. Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington, Brian Hutchison. Cert TBC, 122 mins
In 1968, Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band created a sensation off-Broadway, running for 1,001 performances. Never before had homosexuality been explored so frankly and unapologetically on the stage, at a time when hardly anyone – including the gay men constituting about half the original cast – dared to come out.
Crowley’s comedy-drama about a New York birthday party, with a simple two-act structure designed to bare the souls of a group of friends, was in no way formally radical, but it was a giant breakthrough for honest representation – a feat cemented by the identically cast film version, directed by an up-and-coming William Friedkin, in 1970.
The logic of going back to this play now, which Joe Mantello did when he directed the 2018 revival on Broadway, has nothing to do with updating it or underlining its relevance for today. Kept in period, it’s about re-examining attitudes from 50 years ago – especially the curse of internalised homophobia – in the liberal present.
Mantello has imported all of that cast for this Netflix film version, under the producing aegis of Ryan Murphy. They’re openly gay, to a man – and the very possibility of this proves how times have changed. The revival is in part a homage to the late Crowley – who died in March, and to whom the film is dedicated. It remains an actors’ piece, too, as the play always was.
It’s right there that it both thrives and wobbles, on the merits of performances then and now. With a nearly identical text – even some grotesquely dated racial language has stayed in – this needs a lot of zest to feel fresh. And it does build up with some bounce, especially once the nine-strong party is in full swing, with tush-shaking needle-drops aplenty.
The shindig is being thrown by fretting host Michael (Jim Parsons) for the imperious Harold (Zachary Quinto), who arrives last, as he always does, gets most of the best lines, and easily the best entrance, arriving besuited in dark green satin with a showstopping alibi. “What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together… it’s nobody’s goddamn business but my own.”
There’s blood on the floor already. Michael’s historically straight college pal Alan (Brian Hutchinson) has crashed the joint in black tie, got drunk, and clobbered the campiest guy, Emory (Robin de Jesús), for offending him to his self-hating core. Meanwhile, co-habiting couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and the formerly married Hank (Tuc Watkins) bicker relentlessly about the monogamy question, while Donald (Matt Bomer) and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) mainly stand by with gritted teeth. Oh, and Cowboy Tex (Charlie Carver) – Emory’s gift to Harold for the night – sits there looking dumb, beautiful and dazed.
The play tackles a grab-bag of gay issues with zippy flair. It’s often accused of parading stereotypes more than it dissects them, but that charge hinges less on Crowley’s quip delivery system – bitchy and fearless as it is – than what layers the performers manage to find. Quinto is inspired, with his dark drollery and ability to be louche and cutting in the same breath: the one thing hampering his work is the memory of the ur-Harold, extraordinary Leonard Frey. To one degree or another, everyone has to fight against that problem, but the winner, notably, is Rannells – casually hilarious and moving – as a cad-about-town whose incorrigible flirtatiousness has practically hardened into a life philosophy.
The mean game Michael inflicts on everyone in the second half – a variation on “get the guests” from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but with unsolicited phone calls to each man’s deepest love – feels like a more cumbersome device than it ever has. Part of the problem is Parsons. He has good instincts for rat-a-tat dialogue, but lacks the range to be a great Michael, a recovering alcoholic and lapsed Catholic who’s supposed to swerve from bounteous host to spiteful harpy as soon as gin gets swigged.
Debonair charm is missed in the first place – it’s hard to see why the rest of this lot (especially the laid-back Donald, and the fun-loving Emory) would martyr themselves in his company. And while Mantello’s camera makes some shrewd observations – look how Michael, who hates himself the most, does nothing to help after Emory’s slugging – it doesn’t match the glee, grot or sadness Friedkin put on screen.
You realise just how much that production – and the underrated film – have buoyed the play up over the years. Back then it had the aura of a real party unfolding, getting sodden in a thunderstorm, and a tormented host turning sour. This feels like Netflix redoing it decently enough, with slick clothes and better catering, because they might as well.
The Boys in the Band is streaming on Netflix now