A time capsule originally staged in New York a year before the Stonewall uprising, the Netflix remake of The Boys in the Band is fascinating, exasperating and never able to quite transcend its status as a relic.
Director Joe Mantello preserves the all-gay, starry cast of his 2018 Broadway revival of Mart Crowley 1968 play, considered groundbreaking then in its off-Broadway production. The love that dared not speak its name suddenly wouldn’t stop complaining, cracking jokes and having emotional meltdowns for two full hours. (Atlanta’s Out Front Theatre Company has plans to stage Boys, but Covid-19 keeps interrupting.)
I wonder what The Boys in the Band would look like had it been updated to the 21st century. Very different in many ways, not different at all in others. There’s a shrewd and accurate rot, and also great affection, at the heart of Crowley’s script, first made as a film by William Friedkin in 1970. Even more than half a century later, the dramedy reflects certain truths and clichés of some strata of gay male life: the finely honed cattiness, the obsession with youth and physical beauty, the substance abuse, the focus on materialism and a talent for self-loathing.
Please don’t @ me: I said some strata. Plenty, if not most gay men, are as healthy, balanced and “normal” as the boys of Boys try to pretend to be when a straight man interrupts their party. He’s Alan (Brian Hutchison), an old Georgetown classmate of Michael (Jim Parsons), who’s hosting a birthday dinner for self-described “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” Harold (Zachary Quinto). In New York on business, Alan calls Michael, in tears, and urgently asks to see him.
Entering the bitchy lion’s den of Michael’s Upper East Side apartment, he quickly learns that his straight-as-they-come college pal is anything but that once he meets Michael’s friends: Hank (Tuc Watkins), a divorcing father of two, and his slutty boyfriend, Larry (Andrew Rannells); the quiet Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the sole Black member of the circle; Michael’s supportive friend-with-benefits Donald (Matt Bomer); the snide Harold; and the very queeny, camping Emory (Robin de Jesus), who could no more pass for straight than he could walk on water. Oh, there’s also a cute, dumb hustler called Cowboy (Charlie Carver), rented for the night as Harold’s birthday present.
As much as director Mantello tries to flesh out the play for the screen with opening and concluding montages showing these guys going about their lives in the city and inserting some flashback scenes, there’s no getting around how scripted so much of the dialogue sounds. And how claustrophobic it can be. Yes, that was the standard then. But the nagging and quipping can become wearisome.
After grating on its audiences’ nerves in the first hour of performative competition among these seven frenemies, Boys almost despite itself goes on to nail some nice emotional moments. The focus is a cruel telephone game that Michael inflicts on the others, a direct descendant of George and Martha’s boozy Get-the-Guests routine from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (playwright Edward Albee was a crucial early supporter of Crowley’s play as it tiptoed toward off-Broadway). Michael demands that his guests phone the person they truly love and admit it to them. Contrived, yes, but the ritual yields a few lovely moments.
Those moments can’t overcome other problems. The focus and dialogue are unevenly distributed among the nine actors. Half the cast spends much of the play verbally benched on the sidelines. And there’s some motivational wooziness in the plotting that even as talented a director as Mantello can’t really fix. (You’ll wonder more than once why the hell Alan doesn’t just walk out of the apartment at his first opportunity.)
Though the cast is strong, some personality flips are hard to sell. Parsons already showed us, in the flashy-trashy Netflix series Hollywood, that he could transform his Big Bang Theory nice-guyness into something nasty. The problem is, as host not only to his friends but also to the audience, his Michael’s transition from flawed, insecure fellow to cruel party monster is tough to swallow. Yes, some people get angry when they drink, but this guy is on a whole ’nother level. Simply put, Boys is sometimes expertly structured and at other times a wobbly mess.
Should you see it? Sure. You might think it’s something you’ve already watched, though, with its knowing and knowingly exhausted references to gay icons like Judy Garland and Bette Davis. What was probably shocking in 1968 now feels old hat, thanks to the increasingly gay-inclusive plays, films and TV shows that Boys helped to launch.
I started this review by noting the time-capsule quality of Boys in the Band. Thank God it is, in some ways. There’s no longer the persistent need, or expectation, that gay men, lesbians, nonbinary folks and queers of every kind should try to hide their so-called “otherness.”
On the other hand, just as some negative emotional traits and stereotypes still exist in our community, so does a sense of peril. When the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality five years ago, it no more signified an end to legal homophobia than Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House ushered in a bigotry-free, post-racial America. Four years of Trump have taught us that. Just this week, two SCOTUS justices (one of them, lamentably and predictably, the one from Georgia) announced the hope to overturn the right of same-sex couples to marry.
They can try, but if my husband and I have to picket the courthouse steps in person, I know we will be in good, loving and ample company — old boys in a very crucial band.
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