The shocking drama and dark camp of Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band,” which first bowed off-Broadway in 1968, is hard to top. Filmmaker William Friedkin first brought this two-act stage drama about a group of out-gay male friends (or, more accurately in some pockets of the group, frenemies) to the big screen in 1970, giving audiences a peek behind the velvet curtain of homosexual social life. “Terrifying” is a word often ascribed to this play, written before Stonewall and before AIDS, as it exposed the damage and self-loathing gay men felt in their then-little corner of the world. And, in the 1960s, the play had to speak to all the hidden issues of the time surrounding LGBTQ life.
“The Boys in the Band,” thankfully, doesn’t have to do that anymore. And it doesn’t have to feel terrifying. It’s 1968, and while gay men are largely regarded as an aberration by polite society, the LGBTQ population remains unaware of the horrors to come, allowing “Boys in the Band” to operate on a kind of antediluvian, hedonistic trajectory that celebrates, rather than condemns, gay men. Director Joe Mantello, who first revamped the play on Broadway three years ago with an all-star cast of out-gay male actors, brings that exact same troupe, and sensibility, to the not-quite-big-screen with his new film adaptation produced by Ryan Murphy for Netflix. The result is a sophisticated, tart-tongued revival, and a gayed-up “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that surmounts the challenges faced by stage-to-screen adaptations, specifically the utter confinement to a single space.
Mantello is the revered stage director behind “Wicked,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Blackbird,” and many other Broadway favorites. But he’s a natural behind the camera, moving us in and out of Michael’s (an astonishingly broken-down Jim Parsons) apartment, as he prepares to, and then hosts, the birthday party from hell for his dear friend Harold (Zachary Quinto in a ghastly jewfro wig). A recovering drunk, a Roman Catholic, and an on-and-off writer — a triple bill of shame if there ever was one, on top of being gay — Michael lives in the kind of worldly, charmingly cluttered Manhattan apartment that conjures the romantic image of a man of letters more likely to end up face down in a martini than his typewriter. (Hats off to “Carol” and “American Hustle” production designer Judy Becker.) Michael’s closest confidante and former flame Donald (Matt Bomer) enables Michael’s decadent lifestyle, and in turn Michael likes to coddle his beautiful friend, a city slicker now in the Hamptons, in flight from the Homosexual Lifestyle. Donald is also a bit of flaneur, undergoing a fashionable treatment of psychoanalysis to help make sense of his shame.
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Donald is the first one to show up at Michael’s party, and the chemistry between Parson and Bomer is the most electric of the film, two quippy queens who prove ideal verbal-sparring partners because of their shared history, and bottomless knowledge of one another’s neuroses. Very quickly, a veritable congo line of queers shows up: There’s Emory (Robin de Jesús, Tony-nominated for the same role), the effeminate self-styled “nelly” interior decorator who provides the proudly limp-wristed comic relief of the proceedings; the elegant Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the one Black member of the band, and coolly detached from their shenanigans; the sexually promiscuous party animal Larry (Andrew Rannells); his partner, the recently out-of-the-closet and butchest of the gang, Hank (Tuc Watkins); and finally, a rent boy known as “Cowboy” (Charlie Carver), a muscled, air-headed twink who doubles as a birthday present for Harold.
But there’s an even bigger interloper haunting the party, and that’s Michael’s supposedly straight college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison), who drops in for a surprise visit after apparently leaving his wife. His unexpected arrival sends the party on a collision course toward bubbling-up old resentments, and homophobia both internal and external, as Michael, falling off the wagon in spectacular fashion, urges Alan to come out. He may be gay, but probably not. There was never a knife Michael didn’t love to twist.
Once agent-of-chaos Harold finally arrives waylaid, announcing himself as a “pock-marked Jew faggot,” hence the need to put on a mask and get show-ready, the fun and games begin, and everyone else’s masks start falling off. Bent on making everyone hate themselves as much as he does, a boozy Michael devises a sick telephone game where everyone in the room must call up the one person they believed they ever loved. If anyone answers, that’s one point. If the person you’re actually calling answers, you get two more points. A five-point bonus if you say you love them, and so on. It’s a sick party trick that sends everyone staring down the barrel of their past, and present, in ways that become exhilarating to watch thanks to Crowley’s firecracker dialogue.
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Director Mantello, working from the original screenplay by Crowley from Friedkin’s film, preserves the narrative’s period-specific repartee, and “The Boys in the Band” crackles with iconic quotables, such as “Give me librium, or give me meth!” or “Show me a happy homosexual, and I will show you a gay corpse.” One of the defining qualities of a well-read gay men is his self-deprecating badinage, and Crowley and Mantello serve up plenty.
But Mantello also brings the script to life in sublime ways, especially in flashback and montage sequences as the boys make their humiliating phone calls: a moonlit ballet of naked male bodies in a swimming pool, a sweaty, sexy hookup in a bathhouse between a naked Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells. It turns out “Baby Driver” and “The Matrix” cinematographer Bill Pope can also frame a gay chamber drama, and the visual reveries that take place outside Michael’s apartment help to offset the claustrophobia, and occasionally disbelief that a handful of these men, by the end of Michael’s game, would still be sitting in that apartment.
The fact that the cast comprises solely out-of-the-closet gay men creates for a special alchemy here, as these actors, first established in their summer 2018 Broadway run, have a familiarity and comfort with each other you’d be unlikely to see in a mixed cast of straights and gays. The performances are all superb, but this is Parsons’ show. The decorated TV actor famous for “The Big Bang Theory” deconstructs his Hollywood persona for a character who is part bitchy queen, but mostly wounded animal. As the party fades, and he breaks down sobbing in Donald’s arms, “If we could just learn to not hate ourselves quite so very much,” the effect is devastating. (Trumpeter Chet Baker’s plaintive “Alone Together” on the soundtrack certainly helps the hurt, too.)
While Crowley’s play doesn’t have to speak to every gay male problem anymore, Michael speaks for all gay men in this final meltdown, who have at one point or another, had a brush with (or permanent residency in) self-hatred. But it’s that very status as someone always on the edge of “normal” life, prone to self-laceration and shame, that makes us who we are, and it can be beautiful despite the pain. Crowley, who died in March, didn’t live to see this film, but you can feel his blessing gliding over it all.
“The Boys in the Band” premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, September 30.