When The Boys in the Band premiered off-Broadway in 1968, it was cutting edge, a realistic look at gay men written by a gay man. As Paul Rudnick put it in the documentary Making the Boys, “This play opened at a time when everything was still taboo.” It became a smash hit, but as Michael Musto noted in that same doc, the movie suffered from bad timing. By 1970, Stonewall had happened and modern gay men could no longer relate.
So why revive it? Well, for one, it’s a great history lesson, and for another, so many of its themes have no sell-by date: the pressure to be beautiful, self-harm, unrequited love, polyamory, addiction, suicide, the importance of friends when you’re queer. How queers socialize, how we define ourselves and how we listen to music have changed — and we have rights that would have seemed unthinkable 50 years ago — yet people will always be people.
I’ve seen the film and love its humor, emotion, story and acting. I didn’t even think about how negative it made gays look until more recently. I see it as a work about a particular time and a particular group of people. These men are not supposed to stand in for every gay man. If you are the kind of person who expects each gay film to act as a protest for gay rights, you may not like it. If you lived in a pre-Stonewall world or have just dealt with a lot of homophobic crap in your life, then you might feel triggered, understandably.
I personally don’t think these characters are evil, and I don’t think every representation of us has to be perfect. That being said, Boys can be uncomfortable to watch in 2018 — the amount of shame some of these men feel and the way Michael takes his anger out are admittedly just awful.
The revival stars Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins. This new cast is out and can be so without risking losing their careers. The main challenge for them is understanding the mood of 1968 and connecting with the play’s spirit. Oh, and it would be nice if they could make it their own, too.
The plot? Friends are meeting at an apartment to celebrate a birthday when all emotional hell breaks loose. They are Michael (Parsons), uptight, newly sober; Emory (de Jesús), an effeminate sort; Bernard (Washington), the only black character, whose humor and lightheartedness cover up his sadness and vulnerability; Hank (Watkins), who has left his wife; Larry (Rannells), Hank’s lover; Donald (Bomer), Michael’s loyal, neurotic friend; Cowboy (Carver), a prostitute bought for the birthday boy; Harold (Quinto), the birthday boy, “a 32-year-old ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy”; and Alan (Hutchison), a supposedly straight friend of Michael’s.
Sadly, I never felt like the actors were totally inhabiting these well-written roles. Quinto has the unenviable task of playing a character once played by the great Leonard Frey, an actor who almost totally dominated the original movie — he was a bitchy presence you couldn’t help but love (or at least I couldn’t). Harold is Michael’s conscience and emotional babysitter. He takes a perverse pleasure in kicking Michael while he’s down. But Quinto plays him like he wouldn’t hurt a soul. He’s got the sarcasm down, but his emotional distance weakens the character. His Harold could take or leave what is happening and his angry speech to Michael at the end — the beating heart of this whole play — falls flat on its face.
Parsons was an excellent choice for Michael, because who is Big Bang’s Sheldon if not a straight Michael? He at times evokes who Michael is, and adds a new layer of geekiness (no surprise there), but he’s just not as uptight as the character demands, and like Quinto, he’s too nice. His evolution into a monster is hard to believe. In the film, Emory’s intense annoyance provides comic relief when expressed by Cliff Gorman. His anger serves as a weapon against Alan’s hypocrisy. In this version, we don’t see a really pissed-off Emory. And when you have a softer Michael, Emory and Harold, you lose a giant chunk of that pre-Stonewall pressure-cooker feel.
Hutchison is missing that haunted look the original Alan (Peter White) had, the one that showed how frightened he likely was of his gay feelings. On the positive front, he gives Alan an interesting aggressiveness that one might interpret as a protective mask, so no one thinks he’s queer. I was really pleased with Rannells — he’s got a gift for physical comedy, and is a more fun Larry than Keith Prentice was. Washington has more charisma than the original Bernard too and plays him in such a way that you feel he has added self-esteem. Bomer, Carver and Watkins sort of fade into the background.
I have a feeling with increased rehearsal time and better direction this version of Boys could have been something special that resonated with a new generation. Unfortunately, like the 1970 film, it’s out of tune, albeit for a different reason.
The Boys in the Band
Booth Theatre (222 W. 45th St.)
Through August 11
Photo: ATTRACTION: Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons in The Boys In The Band. Credit: Joan Marcus.