‘The Boys in the Band.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
There are times when theater is escapism. I don’t imagine that I’ll be casting spells any time soon like Frozen’s Elsa or escaping to Margaritaville with Jimmy Buffett. And then there are experiences like the current revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band — an evening (and a commercial undertaking) with such visceral impact and cultural reference that, at one point, it literally knocks the wind out of its central character.
Crowley’s play, which portrays a group of gay men gathering for a birthday party at a stylish Upper East Side apartment in New York City, premiered in April 1968. Pre-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, pre-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and pre-Obergefell v. Hodges… you might wonder what these nine men might have to talk about. Plenty.
Without the political constraints of the last 50 years, Crowley’s script emits a sense of structural freedom, whereby these men struggle, swoosh, snap, and sneer their way through an evening of self-discovery that transcends its timestamp. The production boasts a gay powerhouse roster that includes producers Ryan Murphy and David Stone (among others), director Joe Mantello, and an all-gay cast that spans theater, film and television. And while this rainbow-hued fortitude makes for a compelling and beautifully performed evening, the play’s dark themes of self-loathing and compartmentalization that have afflicted many gay men (including myself) is a looming cloud that resonates as much today as it did in 1968.
It’s early evening as Michael (Jim Parsons) prepares to welcome a group of friends to celebrate Harold’s birthday. Donald (Matt Bomer) is the first to arrive and from the onset, we’re witness to the complicated relationships about to unfold. The pair shares an intimate, though platonic relationship, and the rest of the revelers slowly trickle in: Emory (Robin de Jesús), flamboyant and deliciously dramatic; Hank (Tuc Watkins) and his promiscuous lover Larry (Andrew Rannells); well-dressed Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington); Cowboy (Charlie Carver), Harold’s birthday gift from Emory; the droll birthday boy himself (Zachary Quinto); and a surprise visit by Michael’s old Georgetown roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison).
David Zinn’s duplex set, swathed in red carpet, modular furniture, and mirrored ceilings, feels more like L.A. than New York City, which might make sense given the passing reference to Michael’s job as a screenwriter and multiple references to living outside his means. The action organically spills about the various rooms as if Barbie’s dream house had been overtaken by Ken and his boys to frolick in.
And these boys do, indeed, frolick. The bar cart gets plenty of action as witty repartee is tossed about. Most of it appears harmless until Alan’s arrival. Having just left his wife, his fragile state triggers both homosexual tendencies as well as a violent rage that explodes into an altercation that leaves Emory with a bloody lip. You might wonder why the group doesn’t throw him out right away, but Michael has other plans in store for his old roomie once he starts to hit the bottle himself: a game he invents on the spot called “The Affairs of the Heart.”
Michael asks each guest to call someone he has loved. This provides a framework for a series of monologues for the men to revisit their first crushes, but more importantly, reveals the emotional scars they still bear. Unrequited love is a common theme and what begins as a mischevious frolic turns hateful as Michael rages out of control.
In spite of the streamers and balloons, The Boys in the Band is far more than a theatrical gay party favor. Mantello works his actors hard to excavate Crowley’s inner dialogue. Parsons does much of the heavy lifting with a familiar Southern charm that television audiences have grown to love through 11 seasons of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. But he’s got a formidable sparring partner in Quinto, whose acerbic lethargy is absolutely magnetic.
In an era of hook-up apps and instant gratification, you might think that today’s gay culture is a lifetime away from that depicted in The Boys in the Band. From my experience, it is not. Michael dissolves into a panic attack after the guests leave and realizes the magnitude of his actions. Donald feeds him a valium and they commiserate on the couch:
MICHAEL: Who was it that used to always say, “You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse”?
DONALD: I don’t know. Who was it who always used to say that?
MICHAEL: …If we…if we could just…learn, not to hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just not hate ourselves just quite so very, very much.
Oh, if we could. Perhaps we’d be men, not boys.