There are plenty of dramas that look different with time, but it’s the peculiar fate of “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play, to have been so buffeted by changing times that the play keeps changing its identity. At this point, in fact, I’d say that there are five stages of “The Boys in the Band.”
First, it was a revolutionary work of commercial theater that took you into the lives of half a dozen gay New Yorkers — which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but back then even the most celebrated American playwrights, a number of whom were gay (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee), felt constrained in their portrayal of gay characters. Volumes have been written about how the heterosexual relationships in their works were often “coded” gay relationships. Mart Crowley broke with all that. Inspired, in part, by a New York Times diatribe from the critic Stanley Kauffman, who challenged gay playwrights to write directly about themselves, Crowley did just that, crafting a catchy fork-tongued truth-game psychodrama about a group of drama queens who gather in a Greenwich Village apartment for a birthday party, and by the end of a long night of drinking, bitching, carousing, sparring, and confessing we know everything about all of them.
“The Boys in the Band” was a good play for its time, but it didn’t stand the test of time. The play’s second stage arrived in 1970, when a Hollywood film was made of it (it was directed by William Friedkin, which kind of boggles the mind), and at that point the spirit of gay liberation was rapidly changing the cultural temperature of gay life. The overwhelming self-hatred that Crowley’s characters seemed to share — almost none of them believed that they deserved love — suddenly looked like a wildly out-of-date relic of a more repressive time. Because it was.
The third stage kicked in around the late ’70s (which was when I first saw the movie), at which point the play had gone from being dated to almost pathologically dated. The characters, with their antique movie-diva references and poison-dart rivalries, had come to seem like exhibits in some ghoulish underground high-camp museum, in part because a generation of out-and-proud gay playwrights were now standing on Mart Crowley’s shoulders.
Then, in 2018, came the surprise fourth stage: The play was revived on Broadway for its 50th anniversary, and it was showcased, ingeniously, as a period piece — less a portrait of gay life than a portrait of how gay life was once portrayed. And on that level it was rich and true and fascinating; in a funny way (and it’s often a very funny play), some of the most dated things about it were now the most revelatory.
The new Netflix version of “The Boys in the Band” features the same cast as the revival, led by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto (both are superb), as well as the same director (Joe Mantello), with Ryan Murphy once again leading the team of producers. Why is this the fifth stage? Viewed at home in the age of Covid, “The Boys in the Band” now looks like an ironic valentine of nostalgia to the days when sitting around a tattered New York apartment with friends, even when they have their claws out, feels like one of the most pleasurable things in the world.
The tattered apartment belongs to Michael (Parsons), a screenwriter who favors Hermès scarves and a semi-comb-over. Given that it’s the Village, his place is actually quite large, a duplex with a winding staircase and a roof deck that houses the first half of the party. The spacious set is filled with late-’60s gay bric-a-brac, and Mantello uses it to keep the action flowing. But the action is mostly Michael and his friends trying to top each other with I-read-you-better-than-you-read-me one-liners that grow meaner and more penetrating as the evening wears on.
Michael has had his share of sexual adventure, most of it while traveling, but he’s a guilt-ridden Catholic who can’t reconcile the divided parts of himself. For a long time he justified his activities with “Christ, was I drunk last night!” syndrome; now, he’s trying to stay sober and pure. But he’s sitting on a tinderbox of unresolved feelings, and the perfect one to set it off is Harold, the neurotic birthday boy, who turns being uptight about who he is into a strange form of cool. He’s played by Zachary Quinto, and in his short dark Jewfro, sideburns, tinted glasses, green suit, shirt and tie, ’60s boots, rings on his fingers, and attitude to spare, he’s like Richard Belzer crossed with Lou Reed crossed with Elliott Gould. (If they ever do a biopic of Lou Reed, I can’t imagine an actor who could play him better than Quinto.)
I’ve always loved Harold’s introductory monologue: “What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old ugly pockmarked Jew fairy. And if it takes me a while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I can get up the nerve to show this face to the world, then it’s nobody’s goddamn business but my own.” That, in its way, is punk. And Quinto plays Harold by creating his own stoned space of bitchery, caressing every ruthless line as if it were velvet. He turns lines like “That’s the pot calling the kettle beige” or “Keep telling yourself that as your hair drops out in handfuls” into luscious layer cakes of irony.
As long as Michael and Harold are going at each other, which they do even though they’re old friends (that’s part of the film’s witching-hour sitcom treachery), “The Boys in the Band” plays like a shot. But the other characters come closer to being Johnny one-notes — or as Emory (Robin de Jesús), the most flaming and childlike among them might put it, Mary one-notes. Yet the actors register. Andrew Rannells, as the casually promiscuous Larry, and Tuc Watkins as his older live-in partner, Hank, play out a domestic dilemma that feels archetypal but, in its way, genuine enough. And Michael Benjamin Washington makes the gregarious Bernard a gentle soul trapped in twin oppressions: his sexuality and his race.
A word on the agony-of-getting-old theme. The most antiquated thing in Crowley’s play (apart, that is, from the I’m-addicted-to-failure-to-please-mommy-and-daddy-who-wanted-me-to-fail Freudian dialogue spoken by Matt Bomer’s rather colorless Donald) is that everyone in it acts like reaching the age of 35 is tantamount to receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer. The least antiquated thing about the play — in fact, it’s something I appreciate much more now — is that the characters make virtually no reference to how the outside world is oppressing them, but that’s because they’re living that reality with every breath. Their self-pity and self-hatred is an internalization of what their society thinks of them, and by the end that lends the soap operatics a micro tinge of tragedy. But only a tinge.
At times he’s like Paul Lynde as a frazzled artiste, snapping at his guests and at himself. But Parsons, bouncing from delight to rage and back again, with that twang of insolence and that timing so perfect he doesn’t just tell a joke, he sings it (“One thing you can say for masturbation, you don’t have to look your best”), never lets you forget the hurt-little-boy core that drives Michael to let out his mean streak. He can get awfully cruel, but it’s only because of how much he aches. That’s true of everyone in the play. “The Boys in the Band” is an homage to how to smile, and bitch, though your heart is breaking.
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