The boys are on Broadway, and they are fabulous.
Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and the rest of the nine-member cast of “The Boys in the Band” look like they are enjoying themselves as they trade quips and kisses; eat cake and unwrap birthday gifts; and dance the Madison to 1960’s R&B music.
Fifty years after the Off-Broadway opening of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play about a group of gay men at a birthday party, “The Boys in the Band” is debuting on Broadway with an all-gay cast of A-list actors who make the play pop. The show is often fun, funny and inviting.
Is the script dated? Yes. That’s surely why it’s trimmed to 110 minutes for this production, turned into one act, and presented as a period piece, set in April, 1968, which is the month it premiered on stage. (The movie, with the original Off-Broadway cast, came out in 1970.) Does the play traffic in stereotypes and depict characters who are self-loathing, as it’s long been accused of doing? Well, yes, especially in the second half. Yet, at the same time, helped by the alchemy of Joe Mantello’s smart direction and a stellar cast, the play can still feel daring, and its characters delightfully defiant.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
A glimpse of the dynamic at work in The Boys in the Band is available before it even begins, in the lobby where they’re selling a T-shirt with the words:
The people purchasing these shirts are (to use liberation lingo) co-opting the weapons of their oppressors.
The characters in the play use every one of these epithets – and more – hurling them at each other, and at themselves. “If there’s one thing I’m not ready for, it’s … screaming queens singing “Happy Birthday,” says Jim Parsons as Michael, the host of the party, to his first guest Donald, portrayed by Michael Bomer. Donald will know most of the party guests – “they’re the same old tired fairies you’ve seen around since the day one…,” says Michael, referring to people who are in their 20s or early 30s.
“Are you calling me a screaming queen or a tired fairy?” Donald asks.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Michael replies, “six tired, screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer.”
The characters in the Boys in the Band are self-deprecating, self-pitying and self-destructive. But they are also self-aware. They know that their insulting banter is an in-joke, developed as a defense against a hateful world.
An audience can enjoy these characters without (much) cringing because of their palpable – indeed, enviable — camaraderie. And that atmosphere, according to interviews with cast members, has much to do with the fact that all nine actors are themselves openly gay (as is the director, and the producers, including Ryan Murphy, creator of such TV shows as Glee, Feud, and The New Normal.) Several of the actors have many devoted fans and robust careers that do not seem to have suffered any setbacks because of their candor about their sexual orientation: Jim Parsons “The Big Bang Theory”), Zachary Quinto (the J. J. Abrams “Star Trek” films), Matt Bomer (“White Collar”), Andrew Rannells (Girls, Book of Mormon, Hamilton.) Knowing that the brittle homosexual characters of The Boys of the Band are being portrayed by these good-looking, successful, popular out gay actors creates an extra layer for the audience that in effect shields us from much of the underlying sadness and ugliness of the play.
The first half of The Boys in the Band basically introduces us to the characters one by one as they enter Michael’s mirror-lined Upper East Side duplex. We get quickly sketched portraits that seem intended to present a cross-section of the gay community: Emory is the effeminate interior decorator always ready with something outrageous to say; Bernard is the black guy that Emory insults with racial epithets; Donald is the requisite beefcake; Hank is the boringly straight-acting married guy getting a divorce; Larry, Hank’s lover, is promiscuous and petulant; Cowboy is the young, dumb hustler that Emory has rented to give to Harold as a birthday gift.
And then there’s the uninvited guest, Alan, an upper-class friend of Michael’s from college, who is married with two children and may or may not be a closet case; he is the engine for some physical and emotional confrontations.
Michael, the host, master of ceremonies, and evident stand-in for the playwright, is among the most fleshed-out of the characters, as is the birthday boy Harold, the self-described “thirty-two-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy.” It’s surely not a coincidence that Jim Parsons as Michael and especially Zachary Quinto as Harold stand out for their performances.
It feels unfair, if not almost inaccurate, to single out individual performances, however. Most of the parts are close to cameos; many of the actors get one or two long moments under the spotlight, plus a line or two here or there, and spend much of their time silently standing around or interacting with one another in the background. To put this more positively, The Boys in The Band is essentially an exercise in ensemble acting.
Almost everybody gets at least a few humanizing character traits, and the actors generally make the most of them. Bomer as Donald, for example, strips to his underwear and shows off his chiseled physique. But we also are told that Donald is a voracious reader and Bomer, one of three cast members making their Broadway debuts, manages to communicate his character’s intelligence. Emory gets many of the play’s oft-quoted lines, and Robin de Jesus, a Tony nominee for In The Heights and La Cage Aux Folles (where he played a character similar to Emory) delivers them with panache.
The playwright seems to want us to see these characters as archetypes rather than stereotypes, but this apparent effort fails with several of the characters, most noticeably Cowboy, the 22-year-old hustler, who is supposed to be beautiful but terribly dumb. His stupidity is played for laughs, Michael and Harold making jokes about it right in front of him, which seems not just insufferably mean-spirited rather than funny, but unrealistic.
As if acknowledging this flaw, some of the lines by and about Cowboy have been changed from the published script, and luckily, Cowboy is portrayed by Charlie Carver, a talented young actor who starred in Teen Wolf, as being in a kind of oblivious daze, as if stoned rather than stupid.
Midway through The Boys in the Band – right before what in other productions has been the intermission – the lights focus us on Michael downing a drink. This is significant, because, as we’ve learned earlier, he’s an alcoholic who has been on the wagon for five weeks, and because, we’ve been told, he turns toxic when he’s intoxicated. It’s not clear why he suddenly starts drinking, but his drunken high as promised makes him hostile, and he initiates a mean party game: “We all have to call on the telephone the one person we truly believe we have loved,” and confess that love to him. The object of this affection, as it turns out, is almost invariably an unaware straight man who first awakened each character’s unrequited desire. There are touching moments in the monologues recalling these early romantic yearnings, but The Boys generally becomes less engaging, less accomplished, and more obviously dated in its shift in tone to pathos and forced drama.
This 50th anniversary production of The Boys in the Band will not, I suspect, quell the arguments about the play. Some have said that the show, premiering more than a year before the Stonewall Riots launched the modern gay rights movement, was rendered obsolete by that movement. (The movie, directed by William Friedkin with the original Off-Broadway cast, came out in 1970.) Others have argued that it helped lead to that movement — and that much of it remains relevant to individual gay kids who must struggle with these issues that the characters faced a half century ago (shame, ostracism), but that are new to each generation as they come out.
One can accept the historical significance of The Boys In the Band, and its impact on the culture, without having to pretend that it’s a great play. On the other hand, if The Boys seems formulaic, keep in mind that it created that formula, imitated by decades of lesser gay plays to follow.
There are surely those who are put off by the limited spectrum of characters in a play that implicitly claims to represent the breadth of the gay community, and that has been heralded as an LGBT landmark. But here is an advantage that The Boys in the Band has now that it didn’t have when it pioneered the genre of gay play in 1968, thanks to such current Broadway fare as Angels in America and Kinky Boots, recent Broadway shows like Fun Home and Indecent, and future Broadway shows like Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, scheduled for Broadway next year. It is true that The Boys in the Band is too narrow to be fully representative of LGBT life. But now it doesn’t have to be.
The Boys in the Band is on stage at the Booth Theater (222 West 45th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036) through August 11, 2018.
The Boys in the Band. Written by Mart Crowley
Directed by Joe Mantello; Associate Director: Kristoffer Cusick
Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg;
Featuring Jim Parsons as Michael, Zachary Quinto as Harold, Matt Bomer as Donald, Andrew Rannells as Larry, Charlie Carver as Cowboy, Robin De Jesús as Emory, Brian Hutchison as Alan, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Tuc Watkins as Hank. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.