The Boys in the Band

Mart Crowley’s controversial play The Boys in the Band was revolutionary theatre when it premiered off-Broadway back in the long-ago days of 1968. Opening only a year before the first brick was thrown at Stonewall, the play shocked audiences by openly depicting the lives of gay men at a time when homophobia was both prevalent and the law of the land. As an emotionally draining experience that plunged into the deepest, darkest closets that gay men were trapped in before the days of liberation and self-acceptance, it shouldn’t have worked. Despite being scheduled for a small run, it became a smash hit and moved to Broadway before closing in 1970 after more than a thousand performances.

Despite this, something about it aged out of good taste. It became stereotypical, and its depiction of internalized homophobia and self-loathing fell out of favor with the gay artists and playwrights who came after Crowley. It now lives as a period piece, as a depiction of how gay men used to live, in a time before we could open our closets and proudly walk out into the sun. However, that hasn’t stopped the show from remaining potent or alluring to adaptations. A revival for the show’s 50th anniversary in 2018 is the foundation of this newest adaptation, starring the entire cast from the revival (all out-and-proud gay men). Imagine a more gay, more vicious and campy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and you’re in the right ballpark.

It’s 1968 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and six gay men—bitchy and steely lapsed Catholic Michael (Jim Parsons), his self-loathing boyfriend Donald (Matt Bomer), aloof and quiet Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), effeminate and campy Emory (Robin de Jesús), nyphomaniac polygamist Larry (Andrew Rannells), and Larry’s straight-passing live-in boyfriend Hank (Tuc Watkins)—are throwing a birthday party for their friend Harold (Zachary Quinto), a self described “32 year-old ugly pockmarked Jew fairy.” The party seems to be going fine, as the group of high-camp queens throw delectable barbs at each other, each read becoming increasingly shady. The situation boils over when Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s old and decidedly not gay friend from college, interrupts the party by arriving after an oddly emotional phone call earlier in the day. By invading Michael’s apartment and intruding upon this gathering of homosexuals, he sets off a night of alcohol-soaked revelations, winner-takes-all screaming matches, and cat fights where everyone gets scratched.

There’s certain aspects of the show that haven’t aged well, but the damning truth is that many gay men in America are still stuck in the crueler, more crushing closets that came before the mass acceptance that began in the early 2000s, and the internalized homophobia is so overwhelming that it can suffocate them. I should know—having a father like that hasn’t done me any favors. Michael’s bitter self-loathing that culminates into a horrifying breakdown at the end of the story is masterfully acted by Parsons, who manages to keep the ice-cold facade going until the moment it breaks down, and when it implodes, it’s one of the most heartbreaking things you’ll watch in 2020. Quinto brings a charming, droll quality to Harold, and all of his snippy one-liners are magnificently bitchy nuclear warheads that annihilate their intended targets, even when they’re aimed at himself.

If there’s anyone who feels like an also-ran in the cast, it’s Bomer, whose Donald feels lost at sea among the other skilled performers. Robin de Jesús, who was nominated for a Tony when he played Emory in the revival, balances camp femininity with deep pining, and turns in a devastating performance. The rest of the cast find what’s needed to make their characters work for their big moments, and deliver when it’s their turn to speak on a part of the gay experience in the 1960s. They feel like performances for the stage instead of the camera, but they somehow come across as genuine and fit the mood of the film. It certainly looks like a stage, thanks to the limited locations and the immaculate production design by Judy Becker (Carol). The antiquated feel of the film serves to ask, “what’s different about gay men now versus gay men half a century ago?” What’s changed? The firecrackers that go off between the characters as they fight and argue and drink cheap liquor—culminating in a sick phone game where they must all call someone they truly loved and admit their feelings to the person on the other end of the line—suggesting that for some gay men, there hasn’t been any progress.

Anyone who knows what self-hatred in gay men looks like will get chills as Michael’s internalized homophobia drives him to destroy not just the party, but the partygoers. And when Harold delivers his final zingers at Michael, lacerating his desperation to be straight, it cuts deep. The Boys in the Band is no longer a universal experience for gay men everywhere, but for a certain subsect of them, it still rings true.

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coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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