From left, Jim Parsons, Robin De Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells in “The Boys in the Band.” (Netflix)

From left, Jim Parsons, Robin De Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells in “The Boys in the Band.” (Netflix)

‘Boys in the Band’ remakes a pioneering play about gay men

It’s a period piece and antiquated at times, but the film is a (mostly) well-acted look at how things once were.

  • Thursday, October 1, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

By Michael Phillips / Chicago Tribune

Nineteen sixty-eight: I mean, what didn’t bust loose that year? That was the year playwright Mart Crowley secured an off-Broadway premiere for his then-outre ensemble sensation “The Boys in the Band.” Crowley took inspiration from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and a melange of Hollywood and Broadway creations, all the way back to Claire Booth Luce’s “The Women” in the ’30s, up through Tennessee Williams and his examinations of lives marginalized and defined by the heterosexual mainstream.

As Crowley’s characters gather for a birthday party, the drinks flow, hypocrisies are laid bare, a conspicuous closet case gets his just desserts and the resentments underneath the relentless quips surface. The host, debt-ridden Michael, peers into the future and pleads: “If we could just not hate ourselves so much.”

That one line exemplifies a 50-year debate regarding the legacy of Crowley’s play. The self-loathing and lashing out, the truth and the lies — are these worth exploring anew? If a once-notorious landmark becomes a period piece, as they must, what do we have before us today: a tantalizing relic of another time, well worth the reintroduction and reimagining, or simply an antiquated chore?

The Netflix adaptation is a draw: half-tantalizing, half-antiquated, but fascinating nonetheless.

It’s a modified transfer, stage to screen, of the recent Broadway revival directed by Joe Mantello, reprising his duties here. The most famous cast members, Jim Parsons (Michael) and Zachary Quinto (as the birthday man, Harold), lead the way, though the most intriguing, easy-breathing performances belong to others. In Crowley’s play, nobody breathes easily, really. The lives dramatized, and endlessly self-dramatized, lack the oxygen of love, valor and compassion. That was, in fact, the title of one of Mantello’s peak Broadway achievements, Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!”, a play made possible, in part, by “The Boys in the Band” a generation earlier.

In 1970, William Friedkin shot the first “Boys in the Band” movie like a nervous documentary. Mantello treats his version more as a contained, gently stylized response to the material’s stage origins. The rooftop apartment looks not quite real, because it’s a theatrical conceit — a place of entrances and exits and Judy Garland routines, where the de facto stage manager, host Michael, answers the phone: “Backstage, ‘Funny Girl!’” (The original line was “Backstage, ‘New Moon!’”)

In the second half, Michael initiates a sinister game of forcing the guests to each call someone they truly love, or loved, and say it, no matter the cost. The machinery of the dramaturgy clanks and clunks here, but this is where everyone gets their Big Monologue, and the actors rise to the occasion. Throughout Mantello’s version, you sense the cast inhabiting the world of Crawley’s deeply thwarted men at a slight comic remove. They’re wizards, however, at delineating thresholds of revelation (in Tony Kushner’s phrase), when the act curdles into a darker moment of introspection.

I’d forgotten just how grueling “The Boys in the Band” was, and is. The payoffs in the Netflix redux arrive in the margins, and in lines and exchanges revealing what these “boys” are up against. Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s presumptively hetero roommate from their Georgetown days, drops by for a drink. Harboring his own demons, he shores up his crumbling sense of self by telling Michael it’s OK for homosexuals, or “freaks,” to be that way — “as long as they don’t do it in public” or “force their ways” on the rest of the world. Earlier, Michael, the hopelessly conflicted churchgoing Catholic who sees homosexuality as a curse, warns his guests that roommate Alan, arriving shortly, lives by “different standards.” Therefore allowances must be made for his intolerance.

It’s not an easy revisit, this material. Antic cruelty is like that, and in the first half, Mantello and editor Adriaan van Zylamp up the jittery pacing in ways that do not help. Quinto isn’t quite playing a person; he’s playing a self-consciously created character approximating a person, and the actor overcooks it, slowing his heavy-lidded zingers to a crawl. Parsons has some sharp, truthful moments, but his demeanor lacks the world-weary authority as written. (His zingers have lost a lot of their zing, it must be said.) Everyone else is wonderful, and the limitations of Parsons and Quinto, in the end, are just that — limitations of often effective work. As I said: half-antiquated, half-tantalizing. It’s useful to remember where we were, and where we are, and what helped make that present possible.

“The Boys in the Band” (3 stars)

Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto star in this new version of the groundbreaking 1968 play about a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party. The film is now a period piece that reminds us of where we once were.

Rating: R, for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and drug use

Streaming: Netflix

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