- The Boys in the Band
- Directed by Joe Mantello
- Written by Mart Crowley, based on the play by Mart Crowley and Ned Martel
- Starring Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto
- Classification R; 121 minutes
Before watching The Boys in the Band, which certain Netflix subscribers could stumble onto while fruitlessly searching for episodes of The Big Bang Theory (try Crave), some context is needed.
First: The new film is just the latest iteration of Mart Crowley’s play about a group of gay male friends who gather for a birthday party gone wrong. First mounted off-Broadway in 1968, it received a 1970 film adaptation by future French Connection and Exorcist director William Friedkin, and then a 2018 Broadway revival spearheaded by director Joe Mantello and mega-producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story). This 2020 version, also directed by Mantello, features the entire Tony-nominated cast of the Broadway revival, populated by such proudly out television and film stars as Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons (hence that Big Bang Theory algorithmic hiccup).
So: that’s the history of how The Boys in the Band found its way onto your Netflix homepage – well, that and the fact that the streaming giant paid Murphy US$300-million a few years ago to produce original content, and what’s more original than simply transferring a play and its marquee cast to film?
But viewing Mantello’s movie also requires you to constantly remind yourself that Crowley wrote his original play to reflect a very specific time, place and milieu: the lives of gay men in 1960s New York. For contemporary audiences, watching a group of men joyously dance with one another and then, when interrupted by a straight man’s unexpected presence, clam up and project an air of secrecy and shame would seem dated. Because it is dated, at least for a generation who grew up on Will & Grace in the midst of an eroding, but nowhere near erased, level of society-wide homophobia.
Yet this was Crowley’s reality at the time, and his courage in trying to convey that to a mainstream audience back in 1968 was commendable and remarkable. As is, somewhat, Mantello and Co.'s decision to remount their own remount.
The action takes place over the course of one long summer night, when the alcoholic writer Michael (Parsons) plays host to a birthday party for his frenemy Harold (Quinto). Gathering for drinks are Michael’s easygoing ex-boyfriend Donald (Bomer), quiet librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the splashy commercial designer Larry (Rannells) who is struggling to maintain a monogamous relationship with the recently divorced father of two Hank (Tuc Watkins), the flamboyant interior decorator Emory (Robin de Jesus) and the young and dumb Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a prostitute hired by Emory to be Harold’s present for the evening.
Starting off light-hearted, the evening spirals into an abyss of irreparable harm and heartache after Michael’s old college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison) shows up unexpectedly. Friendships are broken, lives are questioned, and resentments – both internalized and otherwise – bubble messily to the surface.
Most of Crowley’s lines land with the same crackling wit and vicious energy as they must have half a century ago – “One could murder you with very little effort!” – and though his story’s structure owes much to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the narrative is tight enough and specific in its atmosphere to stand as its own unique creation. (Although it makes sense that Mantello also directed Woolf on Broadway.)
The trouble is that while Crowley’s work rebukes some of the presumed expectations of his time, the original story and characters are so firmly rooted in a particular era that this new production cannot quite escape its period-piece construction. Mantello is revisiting history but not necessarily reviving it.
Another challenge, albeit on a lesser scale and one more familiar to other stage-to-screen adaptations, is that The Boys in the Band is a chamber play, locked in one location. Early on, Mantello tries to up the cinematic stakes by introducing his characters zipping around the city pre-party, adding a handful of dream-like flashback sequences, and then later exploring every possible corner of Michael’s surprisingly spacious Manhattan apartment (that terrace!). Yet without radically altering Crowley’s play, the action remains muted, the camera only having so many angles to cover.
Despite all these challenges, the performances that Mantello wrings make the 2020 effort worth everyone’s trouble. Parsons and Hutchison deliver powerful and searing depictions of men simply not comfortable in their own skins, while Rannells and de Jesus chew whatever scenery they’re provided like it was their last supper. And Quinto, playing a drug-addicted misanthrope who proves himself to be the only man at the party who truly knows himself, has an absolute blast as Harold. The actor, best known for his role as the emotionless Spock in the rebooted Star Trek movies, carries himself with a half-giddy, half-slimy energy that is infectious.
“Are you having a good time?” Michael asks contemptuously of Harold late in the evening.
“Simply fabulous,” the birthday boy replies.
I cannot help but agree.
The Boys in the Band is available to stream on Netflix starting Sept. 30
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