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As I was pondering how best to convey to 2018 readers the effect that Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band had on audiences when it premiered fifty years ago, a friend who’d also attended the new Broadway revival (at the Booth Theatre) posted to Facebook his recollections of his first viewing of the play, in 1969, when he was fifteen. “I didn’t see a world of alcohol and depression and self-loathing,” he wrote. “I saw that I wasn’t going to be alone.” For anyone who was gay but not yet out in that menacing time — whether pre-Stonewall or with Stonewall only an incident that had not yet burgeoned into a movement — this was the revelation Crowley’s barbed comedy-drama brought.
To those of us who were already out to our friends, it brought affirmation: While boozing, bickering, or self-hating, we were still a community. And for non-gay Off-Broadway-goers, sophisticated enough to know all about gays as a friendly but alien race of hairdressers and interior decorators, that affirmation suddenly became a reflection. We were a community, they were a community. Crowley’s careful selection of his characters from the gay world’s varied types, like the cross-section, one-of-each-kind bomber crews of a patriotic World War II movie, became, by extension, a mirror — as the bomber crew was intended to be — of America itself. Suddenly we, too, sang America. So what if some of us had a lisp?
While this was not a political statement per se — and the gay movement which arose from Stonewall would shortly begin to denounce the play as retrograde and stereotyped — it was the kind of cultural expression that becomes political by way of steady seepage. Everybody knew Boys in the Band; even those who hadn’t seen it knew of it. It was produced all over the U.S. — in small venues, but all over. (I’ve been told of productions with all-female casts.) Its cattiest lines went into common parlance. It spawned an LP recording, and then, in 1970, William Friedkin’s film version — one of the rare plays to arrive onscreen with its entire original stage cast intact. And for all that has happened to and for gay men in the decades since, Crowley’s Boys has never been far from their communal consciousness. Two Off-Broadway revivals (WPA Theater, 1996; Transport Group, 2010) preceded the current Broadway venture.
The new production, directed by Joe Mantello, underscores how greatly gay life has changed since the play’s premiere by featuring a cast of film and TV names who are all openly gay — an openness which, back then, would have amounted to career suicide or something very close to it, as far as the two-dimensional media were concerned. (Theater audiences were less morally haughty about their stars’ sexual leanings.) But, while evoking this sense of social progress since 1968, Mantello’s production also emphasizes the dark side of this pre-Stonewall world. In a slimmed-down script that compresses the action into ninety intermissionless minutes, Michael (Jim Parsons) and the seven other gay men (plus one arguable interloper) who assemble at his apartment to celebrate the birthday of his and their friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) trade increasingly cutting quips until Michael, having fallen off the wagon under the stress of the situation, pushes them all into a series of confrontations masquerading as a party game.
This latter theatrical contrivance — for nobody has ever pretended Michael’s telephone game was anything but that — reveals, interestingly, both good and bad aspects of the group’s various personalities, showing how complex Crowley’s view of gay life is. A reasonable complaint against the condensed script, and against Mantello’s tendency to push toward the showier confrontations, is that the approach lacks the original’s more textured sense of the group’s party life. There literally isn’t time to breathe between the bitchy zingers and the bouts of recrimination. Nor is there space: David Zinn’s elaborate set for Michael’s lushly decorated duplex apartment, its upstage areas kept mostly in shadow by Hugh Vanstone’s somber lighting, tends to shove everyone to cluster downstage. (Peter Harvey’s set for the original, on a far smaller stage, somehow gave room for a more expansive sense of the evening’s ongoing life.)
That sense of emotional interconnection — the positive side of the community the play depicts — is also only intermittently seen in the acting. This is ironic: You’d think an all-gay cast would be especially sensitive to the script’s moments of solidarity, of gays sticking up for one another against a recalcitrant host or aligning as a group against the intruding straight who insults and then slugs one of their number. These things still happen in the text being played, but they come off as individual occurrences, not as events that arise from a sense of group feeling. The acting overall is very good, but it’s also very discrete, a matter of every star doing his stuff, with relatively little sense of any bond or link between them. This is particularly a problem with Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins as Larry and Hank, the only established couple. Crowley presents their relationship as a rocky one — prefiguring a lot of today’s LGBT debates about same-sex marriage — but one that nonetheless has a strong chance of lasting. Instead, what we get onstage is two strongly contrasting personalities with only wan emotional links.
There’s a much stronger sense of bonding in the performances of Robin De Jesús, as the hyper-effeminate Emory, and Michael Benjamin Washington, as Bernard, the group’s one black member. Here the script crashes up against the current time’s sense of politically correct diction: Michael’s application of the n-word to Bernard actually provokes more audience shock than anything said onstage about gays. But here, also, Crowley talks his way intelligently past the offensive point, and the compassionate dignity with which De Jesús and Washington treat each other while rebuking their drunken host shines an inner light on the dark realities being dealt with. In its quieter way, Matt Bomer’s portrayal of the bookish Donald, Michael’s perpetual weekend guest, becomes an emblem for the part of the play that isn’t highlighted in this production. Donald, the only invited guest who isn’t particularly a friend of Harold’s, mostly sits or stands quietly to one side, projecting a helpless desire to be helpful; Bomer catches this quality exactly, though the role gives him nowhere to go with it until the very end.
Michael and Harold, friends who compete at insulting each other — Catholic and Jew, alcoholic and pothead, shopaholic credit-card juggler and neurotically insecure agoraphobe — are the play’s twin pillars of internalized gay self-hatred. In their contrasting preoccupations, you need to see not only the contorted mess they’ve made of themselves, but the handprints their parents and family left on them — and how much of a functioning self each has managed to save from the wreckage. You need to see, too, the bond that enables them to spar so unyieldingly on a fairly high intelligence level (neatly summed up in Harold’s analysis of their combats) and always come back for more. Parsons and Quinto, gratifyingly, get much of this. Parsons’s ability to line out his domineering put-downs as the artillery of a weak person fighting back is particularly apt, and Quinto’s owlish, loftily cerebral Harold feels like a fresh reading of the role. What they can’t do is erase the memory of brilliant predecessors: from the original, Kenneth Nelson’s marvelous mix of nasty and vulnerable as Michael and Leonard Frey’s incomparable pained flamboyance as Harold, preserved on film, have haunted every production since. The WPA revival gloried in David Greenspan’s near-surreal Harold, gliding like an ice skater across the carpet; Transport Group’s was driven by Jonathan Hammond’s almost demonically compulsive Michael, recollection of which still chills my blood. Parsons and Quinto, though first-rate actors, don’t reach such dazzling heights.
Still, the lack of individual actor-dazzle in an ensemble-based work like Boys in the Band needn’t be a decisive factor. The play’s the thing here, and if Mantello’s production seems to keep its many facets separate, he nonetheless makes sure each of them registers strongly. The social mores of Boys in the Band may belong to that antique era of homosexual life before Gay Liberation, AIDS, and same-sex marriage, but the issues its characters confront — homophobia, racism, fidelity-vs.-promiscuity, drug dependence, self-hatred, and a raft of other psychological problems — are all not only still with us but back in renewed force. A lot of today’s influential closeted lunatics, starting with our current vice president, would like to wish all gays back into the conditions that created the society pictured in The Boys in the Band. For Log Cabinites, and others in the LGBT community who think that would be a good idea, Crowley’s play provides a salutary antidote. For the young, who have only the haziest idea of what gay life was like back then, it might prove both a tonic and a wake-up call — a chance to learn that, whatever happens, you are not going to be alone.