Mart Crowley’s 1968 Off Broadway play The Boys in the Band was provocative and trailblazing in its knives-out portrayal of a group of gay friends celebrating a birthday in the West Village that is crashed by the straight college roommate of one of the gang.
A play about a group of gay men doesn’t seem particularly incendiary today, but given that in the 1960s gay American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee were still writing coded gay relationships and characters into their plays made Crowley’s dramedy all the more startling. Gay liberation was a few years away.
What remains as vivid and scorching in 2020 is the level of self-loathing and self-pity the characters in The Boys in the Band express (and express…and express). They are drama queens and divas of such alacrity they would make Ru Paul seem demure in comparison.
Hatred turned inward burns like an eternal flame in these men as they play a drunken truth-telling game where the bitching, shade-throwing, anger, and poisonous confessions are flung about like birthday confetti.
The 2018 Broadway revival which I saw (upon which the Netflix movie is based, including many of the cast reprising their stage roles) was staged as a period piece, a rich portrait of gay life as it once was. Surprisingly funny and captivating to theatergoers living in a time of gay pride and love, the revival was caught in the past but never felt dated.
The Netflix version is similarly fresh and revelatory, taking us back to a time when gay men were closeted in general society, but let it all hang out when by themselves.
A swinging 60s apartment (with a spiral staircase and hanging rattan chairs) owned by Michael (Jim Parsons) is the main setting for the movie, although director Joe Montello opens it up with dream-like flashback scenes depicting pivotal points in the men’s sexuality.
Parsons—and this is not a slam by any means—evokes Don Knotts in his fussiness about his receding hairline, Hermes neck scarves and colorful cashmere sweaters. As the party’s host, he’s on the verge of hysteria that everything goes right.
For all his glib charm, Michael is a tortured soul, a devout Catholic who wants to pray the gay away. He’s a powder keg of tamped down feelings—and the birthday boy Harold (Zachary Quinto), a nerdy-cool neurotic, is holding a lit match.
In the beginning, Michael seems like a tightly wound, but appeasing, party host, quick with the one-liners and drink refills. But as the night wears on, Parsons’ Michael masterfully drops the fey façade, revealing a mean streak and a steely resolve that chills you to the bone.
Quinto’s Harold is the perfect foil—unruffled and restrained, almost regal in his meticulously maintained hang up—as he drops ruthless quips with velvet menace and watches Michael fall apart through black sunglasses.
Other guests at the party bring emotional power to what could be one-note characters: Emory (Robin de Jesús), the most flamboyant character of the group, but also the sweetest and most open-hearted; and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a gentle and bookish soul who is doubly-oppressed by his homosexuality and for being black. His participation in the party game is effecting and harrowing, as he code-switches his voice and demeanor when playing to the the gay crowd and while constantly being reminded of his race and his place in American society.
The production’s remaining classically handsome cast members leave a fainter impression, other than expressing their characters’ constant obsession with aging and losing their looks. Yes, my friends, in the late 1960s, gay men were pretty much washed up by age 30 or so.
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think that–with its quicksilver wit, cultured bile and droll, drawing room comedy sensibilities–it’s a play Edward Albee might have written back in the day if he were free to turn the mirror on himself and his milieu without coding or subterfuge.
The Boys in the Band. Based on the stage play by Mart Crowley . Screenplay by Mart Crowley, Ned Martel . Director: Joe Mantello . Featuring: Jim Parsons (Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matthew Bomer (Donald), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Robin de Jesús (Emory), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), Brian Hutchinson (Alan), Tuc Watkins (Hank), Charlie Carver (Cowboy).
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. Watch on Netflix.