How much baggage does The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s 50-year-old groundbreaker, tote onto its first-ever Broadway stage? How many memories of early Off Broadway notoriety, dismissive reappraisals and late-in-the-day charges of antiquated self-loathing?
Oh Mary, don’t ask.
Or actually, do. Because director Joe Mantello, a production team that includes Ryan Murphy and Scott Rudin, and a cast led by the full-of-surprises Jim Parsons as well as Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer, have revived and revitalized a play that for all its imperfections throws a party at the Booth Theatre that shouldn’t be missed.
And not just as some musty, the-way-we-were study guide. After all the lacerating barbs – what shocks most today might be the depiction of horrendously casual racism – we’re reminded that Crowley wrote a fierce and funny drama about the damage done when society’s hate works its way into the souls of its outcasts. Some things don’t change.
Boys is set, as ever, in 1968 – no significant updates or modifications have been made, save for the removal of an intermission and some tinkering with character ages. We’re invited to an evening with a group of gay men gathered for a birthday party in the elegant Upper East Side apartment of host Michael (Parsons), a white-knuckle alcoholic whose tumble off the wagon will take no survivors.
In true Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf style – the Edward Albee play was, admiringly if blatantly, Crowley’s inspiration – the party turns more vicious with every sip.
Among the victims, victimizers or, most likely, both: Donald (Bomer), Michael’s intelligent, reasonably well-adjusted, much psychoanalyzed pal with self-esteem issues; Larry (Andrew Rannells), a fashion photographer whose disregard for monogamy puts him in near-constant battle with live-in lover Hank (Tuc Watkins), the butchest, most hetero-conforming of the bunch; Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the sole black man – and frequent butt of racist jokes – of the gang; Emory (Robin de Jesus), the campy, effeminate interior decorator who irritates and amuses in equal measure; and Cowboy (Charlie Carver), the rent boy purchased by Emory as a gift for the birthday boy.
And that birthday boy would be Harold (Quinto), self-described in one of the play’s instantly notorious passages as “a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy,” constantly stoned on pot, always late, and the only one truly capable of going stab for stab with Michael.
So that’s the mix – except for wild card Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s ostensibly straight college buddy who has shown up unannounced, deeply upset by something we never really discover, unaware (somehow) that Michael is gay or that his own unexpected presence will set off the George & Martha, go-for-the-jugular antics. It all culminates in a cruel parlor game, devised by a toxic Michael, in which each partygoer must telephone his one true love and come clean.
Michael’s target, of course, is Alan, who has, in short order, cluelessly insulted his host, possibly flirted with Hank and physically attacked Emory. Michael now wants vengeance, as much for a lifetime cowering in silence from the likes of Alan as for the violence the stuffed shirt has irrevocably made physical.
Unleashed – and the very definition of a mean drunk – Michael is convinced that his game will not only expose Alan’s true sexuality, but unearth all the secrets and vulnerabilities of his other guests.
David Zinn’s set – an ultra moderne, horizontally bisected ’60s-era duplex of plush blood reds, mirrors, chrome and marble – is a shadow box of segments, as compartmentalized as the lives of the men inside. (Zinn also designed the costumes, period-accurate without a trace of cartoon retro).
In a recent interview with Deadline, Mantello noted the “meta aspect” of having an entire cast of openly gay actors – possibly a Boys first, and certainly of this wattage – playing these roles, and how the audience’s knowledge or perception of the actors’ affection for one another somehow mitigates the longstanding criticism that Crowley’s boys make for unpleasant company.
Judging from the reviewed performance, I can’t disagree. And the likability of the cast – Mantello didn’t specify Parsons, but I will – plays out in other ways. The gut-punch when TV’s beloved Sheldon Cooper spits out the N-word isn’t softened, it’s made lethal.
Parsons also does well by steering clear of Kenneth Nelson’s probably definitive original portrayal of Michael captured in William Friedkin’s underrated 1970 film version. In fact, the movie just might be the one bit of luggage this play will always have the most trouble ditching, so indelible were the performances. Quinto, in particular, can’t outrun Leonard Frey’s Harold any more than David Greenspan did in the last New York revival, Off Broadway, in 1996.
Bomer, if a bit shy in stage technique, is well-suited (ok, even when a bit gratuitously unsuited) for the easygoing Donald, the play’s outside observer whose place as a sort of hitching post for the audience was probably more essential in ’68. Mantello makes a smart move by accentuating Donald’s bystander-in-life status as more character nuance than tour guide. De Jesus (In the Heights) is very good as the defiantly old-school Emory – this character, for all the jokes and insults, is the play’s heart, and its single most effective argument against charges of being some sort of archaic apologia.
Of the rest, only Rannells (Girls), usually a stand-out, seems a bit miscast, his Larry lacking a certain roguish charisma. Washington brings a welcome layering to the underwritten Bernard, particularly in the pivotal scene where he dials up a long-ago love, the scion of the white family for whom Bernard’s mother was servant. On the phone, Washington deploys a till-now buried Southern accent, Bernard’s past making itself known.
But Bernard, even as well performed as he is here, shows the play’s not inconsiderable seams. He’s always come across as little more than a superficial nod to inclusion, just as surely as Alan is a necessary plot device. Those are imperfections that the best direction and most appealing performers can’t hide. They lock The Boys in the Band just outside the major works of its era, even if they can’t keep us away from the party.