A film adaptation of Joe Mantello’s 2018 Broadway run, The Boys in the Band depicts a single evening which spirals out of control as a result of the trauma of those attending
Starring Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Tuc Watkins, Andrew Rannells, Robin de Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington, Brian Hutchinson, and Charlie Carver
Written as a play in 1968 by Mart Crowley (who sadly passed away this past March), The Boys in the Band was a revolutionary piece at the time. Not only did it feature gay characters, but it was also written by a gay playwright about his own experience, which was as a response to Stanley Kauffman’s criticisms of the distortion of heterosexual relationships by homosexual dramatists. One of Crowley’s contemporaries, Edward Albee, for example, had written Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. As a gay playwright, it was argued that the complex relationship between Martha and George was tinted by his own proclivities. Albee himself actually challenged critics to find the queer coding within Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as he was wholly unaware of it.
Originally performed off-Broadway, The Boys in the Band is definitely a period piece in terms of its depiction of homosexuality. For many years it was viewed as dated because of its rather bleak portrayal of gay self-hatred, and the harmful effect that systematic oppression does to an individual. Coming just before the Stonewall riots in 1969 and the AIDS pandemic, The Boys in the Band is remarkably devoid of political sentiment, aside from the general premise of seeking acceptance from the wider community.
The Boys in the Band was revived for its 50th anniversary, though this time on Broadway, featuring an all-gay cast, and directed by Joe Mantello. It is this creative team that producer Ryan Murphy has brought back together for this film adaptation.
The plot details a social group of gay men coming together to celebrate one of their birthdays. Michael (Jim Parsons), the host, is dreadfully insecure about ageing, as well as conflicted between his religion and sexuality. His part-time lover Donald (Matt Bomer) also attends, though it’s clear that he’s developed emotional barriers between himself and the rest of the group. Then, there’s Emory (Robin de Jesús), the highly effeminate interior decorator and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who finds himself further outcast by his role as the group’s only black man. Couple Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Larry (Andrew Rannells) are no more secure than the rest of the troupe, as they find conflict between Larry’s promiscuous ways and Hank’s urge to have a more traditional monogamous relationship as a result of his previous marriage to a woman. Finally, there’s the birthday boy himself, Harold (Zachary Quinto), who comports himself with a quiet menace and is obsessed by his age and his looks.
Rounding out the group are Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a dim, but incredibly kindhearted rent boy, who serves as one of Harold’s birthday presents, and Alan (Brian Hutchinson), Michael’s straight former college roommate, who has no idea that Michael is gay. Much of the unravelling of the social event is caused by Alan’s presence, as Michael is desperate to conceal his sexuality from his former friend, asking the other attendees not to give themselves away. Alan, meanwhile, has clearly come round to Michael’s to tell him something deeply important, something that’s so upsetting that he breaks down in tears over the phone.
The Boys in the Band shares a lot with Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The action in both takes place over a single social gathering, in which, as more alcohol is consumed, events begin to chaotically unravel. Both are typified for an uneasy sense of brittle tension throughout. There’s the sense that each of the assembled men are keenly aware of each other’s flaws, and have very few qualms pointing them out and slowly picking away at the other’s insecurities, much in the vein of Martha and George’s toxic vitriol.
The cattiness and insults are rife throughout the gathering, until the party culminates with a hugely sadistic game, suggested by Michael, in which each person has to phone up the person they first fell in love with. Here’s where the piece reaches its emotional climax, allowing for many of the characters to fall into deep impassioned monologues. Taking full advantage of the film medium, Mantello makes the decision to incorporate flashbacks at this point so as not to risk the action becoming too static, but this part of the film is really where the unexpected characters, like Emory, Bernard, Hank and Larry properly come into their own.
Ultimately, The Boys in the Band does give an intriguing look into the past, and the tremendous pain of the gay community to remain hidden. Even though by today’s standards, many viewers will be wishing to see themselves reflected on the screen, there’s still a lot of resonance with the self-hatred demonstrated by these characters, even though this message is a little heavy-handed. (The film literally finishes with the lines “If we could just not hate ourselves so much. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”).
Deeply compelling and well performed by the entire cast, The Boys in the Band is a fabulous adaptation of a groundbreaking pieces of theatre.
The Boys in the Band is streaming now on Netflix.