Review: The ‘Boys’ are back: Parsons, Quinto and Bomer bring the ‘Band’ party to Netflix
When Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band,” the granddaddy of gay plays, first appeared off-Broadway, it offered an inside peek into what had been consigned to the shadows: gay male life as it is experienced outside the closet.
The characters in this 1968 drama, New York friends gathered for a birthday celebration, slurp cocktails, trade bitchy repartee, assemble into a chorus line, flirt, flame out and throw fits. The psychodrama is relentless, but no one commits suicide, the traditional end for homosexuals in plays and movies, so it was considered progress.
A year after “The Boys in the Band” debuted onstage, the Stonewall riots would usher in the gay liberation movement. As groundbreaking as Crowley’s play was in bringing visibility to a subculture that was ridiculed when not being ignored, the work was already being dismissed as retrograde by the time the film version came out in 1970.
Crowley’s campy wisecracks resounded in gay bars across America for years, but an ambivalence prevailed. Between the indulgence of flamboyant stereotypes and the internalized homophobia of Michael, the alcoholic protagonist and psychological arsonist, the drama only seemed to compound unflattering caricatures.
But Crowley was actually condemning society for making love between men the dirtiest secret of all. Vito Russo went so far as to declare in “The Celluloid Closet,” his irreplaceable 1981 book on homosexuality in the movies, that “The Boys in the Band” made the “best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
As I said to my gay BFF after watching the new Netflix version of “The Boys in the Band,” which reunites the cast of Joe Mantello’s Tony-winning 2018 Broadway revival, Crowley’s landmark work is both dated and eternal, a period piece that still has something urgent to say. The conditions have improved for LGBTQ people in the last half-century, but discrimination and homophobia persist. Crowley’s work maps out the internalization of this toxic brew of intolerance, the way it seeps into the fabric of gay identity and corrodes from within.
With a screenplay by Crowley and Ned Martel, this handsome remake is directed by Mantello at an entertaining clip. Jim Parsons stars as Michael, the host of the all-male soiree who tries to conceal his self-hatred under Hermès cashmere that still isn’t paid off. Zachary Quinto plays Harold, the birthday boy, who forthrightly describes himself as a “32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy,” making clear that no one, not even sharp-tongued Michael, is going to be able to wound him with a cutting remark.
Lighting up a joint as he settles into the festive turbulence, Harold presides as a choral counterweight, parrying Michael’s caustic thrusts with his own savage truths. Michael has fallen off the wagon after a surprise visit from his supposedly straight college friend, Alan (played with sorrowful gruffness by Brian Hutchison). Agitated and embarrassed, Michael unleashes his rancor on his guests in a manner that could give Martha a run for her money in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — a palpable influence on Crowley’s drama.
The hostility in “The Boys in the Band” is not only ugly but also dramatically confining. Michael’s viciousness loses some of its psychological nuance when it kicks into high gear. The character begins to resemble a plot device as he works feverishly to intensify the static situation of a birthday party gone awry.
Parsons doesn’t always seem perfectly cast but he gives us a powerful glimpse of Michael’s horror of aging, when, catching sight of himself in the mirror, he turns his head as though he were a vampire sensing glimmers of dawn. He subtly connects Michael’s accommodating friendship with Alan, who makes no bones about his distaste for male effeminacy, to Michael’s own self-loathing. Yet the behavior of this divided, semilapsed Catholic gay man grows contrived when he’s awash in gin. Crowley’s somewhat monotonous writing needs more subtle delineation in performance.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Oct 16, part of a larger deal with show creator Heidi Schreck.
In the 1996 off-Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band,” the inimitable Obie-winning theater artist David Greenspan played Harold as though he were an extraterrestrial draped in an exaggerated 1960s zeitgeist. The portrayal offered a bracing jolt of weirdness that awakened the play for a new era. Quinto’s performance brought to mind Greenspan’s bizarre daring, except the camera isn’t as welcoming of this Harold’s drawn-out speech pattern, hyena laugh and gravity-slowed movements. At times it seems as if we’re viewing Harold through the jaundice hue of his tinted glasses. The character, a cynic with a knowing heart, is an outsider. But Quinto’s portrayal, while fascinating in its eccentricity, disconnects Harold from the one group to which he’ll always belong.
One advantage of the original “Boys in the Band” film, directed by William Friedkin (who would go on to direct a slightly less scary movie called “The Exorcist”), is that the actors were not widely known, making it easy to mistake the originators of the roles for their characters. Mantello’s starry cast doesn’t allow for the same confusion.
Beyond the marquee names of Parsons and Quinto, this deluxe Ryan Murphy-produced offering features the recognizable faces of Andrew Rannells, who plays sexually prolific Larry, and Matt Bomer, who brings a chiseled beauty and hushed grace (along with a flash of nakedness) to Donald’s neurotic dithering. Although he sometimes looks as though he’s wearing “Boys in the Band” drag, Rannells breathes bickering life into Larry’s relationship with Hank (an impeccably natural Tuc Watkins), the math teacher who left his wife for Larry and doesn’t understand his partner’s compulsive cruising.
Michael Benjamin Washington lends bookish Bernard a poignant dignity as the character shrugs off a battery of racist put-downs. As the Cowboy, one of Harold’s birthday presents, Charlie Carver imbues the slow-witted hustler with an affectionate sweetness that only throws into relief Michael’s gratuitous cruelty.
Emory, the most flamboyant in Crowley’s taxonomic set, is described by a disgusted Alan as a “butterfly in heat.” But he’s given wings of steel by Robin De Jesus in the film’s freshest characterization. Mincing about the apartment with the lasagna he’s specially prepared, he puckishly mixes up pronouns, tosses out ribald quips like confetti, delights in Harold’s approval of his Cowboy gift and doesn’t flee after he’s assaulted by Alan and verbally assailed by Michael.
Scott, ‘the hot priest’ of ‘Fleabag,’ is magnificent as the wounded, weary son at the center of the Old Vic’s ‘Three Kings.’
Emory’s strength, however, is most evident during the sadistic party game, in which the men are bullied by Michael to telephone the one person they truly loved and confess their secret before hanging up. In De Jesus’ grounded portrayal, Emory’s hurtful memory of an older boy from his Bronx childhood with whom he just wanted to be closer humanizes without sentimentalizing a character who has been separated from the herd for as long as he can remember.
Even Alan, who has hung around out of a combination of shell-shock and sexual curiosity, develops compassion for the flouncing impish id he only a short time earlier punched in the mouth. Michael’s game might have had malicious motives behind it, but a single theme emerges to unite the disparate stories that are shared: how different life would have been had love — innocent, boyish, uncalculated love — not been made a source of shame.
Any revival of “The Boys in the Band” is forced to recognize the lingering traces of the past in the present. The film, dedicated to Crowley, who died this year, beautifully summons a vintage gay New York that was building inexorably to Stonewall.
Productions from the Fountain, A.C.T., Pig Iron and La Jolla Playhouse are admirably ambitious at times, but they also reveal the limits of digital.
If some of the character subtleties get lost in the drunken shuffle, Mantello’s dedicated company honors the communal bonds that have transformed characters from such different backgrounds into a family. These raucous friends inhabit Michael’s stylish apartment as if it’s their home too. And they bear with one another because they understand the rage of backlogged pain.
Perhaps the most remembered line from the play is Michael’s desperate crack at the end: “Who was it that used to always say, ‘You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.’” But the most moving is Harold’s parting remark to Michael, spoken after pointing out the self-hatred at the root of his friend’s animosity: “Call you tomorrow.”
'The Boys in the Band'
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday, Sept. 30
Rating: R, for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and drug use
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