theater review

Theater Review: Can The Boys in the Band Work in 2018?

The Boys in the Band, at the Booth. Photo: ©2018 Joan Marcus

Attending the still-contentious, oddly timed, star-studded 50th anniversary Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s 1968 gay-theater trailblazer, The Boys in the Band, is a strange, somewhat removed experience. At least, it was for me, though I was surrounded by a packed house that breathlessly applauded every celebrity entrance, yelped with delighted laughter at every dig and burn, and rocketed to their feet when the lights went down. I don’t want to patronize my fellow audience members: There are surely things to be enthusiastic about in Joe Mantello’s glitzy, solidly acted revival, perhaps most of all the commitment of its producers, David Stone and the seemingly omnipotent Ryan Murphy, to assembling a complete cast of openly gay actors, a feat that would have been impossible when the original production shocked and captivated New York a year before Stonewall. While many of the actors in the 1968 cast (and William Friedkin’s ensuing 1970 film) were gay, none were out, and by 1993 five of the nine, along with the play’s original director and producer, had died of AIDS.

Fifty years later, Murphy is spearheading the Boys’ comeback with, it seems, the dual motive of celebrating and interrogating how far the world has advanced in half a century. Talking to Jesse Green in the Times in February, Murphy honored the courage of this revival’s cast — “[They’re] the first generation of gay actors who said, ‘We’re going to live authentic lives and hope and pray our careers remain on track,’ and they have” — and questioned whether we’re “really so much better off” today. The answer to that might be the same as the answer to the question, “Do we really need a Boys in the Band revival?” or, now that we have one, “So is it any good?”

Yes. No. It’s complicated. The Boys in the Band has spurred irate criticism and passionate defenses ever since it sprang from Crowley’s bitter, energetic pen over the course of five short weeks that he spent, broke and out of a job in Hollywood, house sitting for some wealthy acquaintances. Its story of nine friends at a birthday party (well, seven, plus one hunky male hooker and one maybe-closeted-maybe-just-very-confused unexpected guest), where the host descends from cattiness to outright cruelty as the alcohol flows and the night wears on, has been both held up as a theatrical and political milestone of courageous honesty and attacked as backward and counterrevolutionary. Edward Albee hated it. Larry Kramer denounced its “internalized homophobia.” And indeed, it is a play about self-loathing. Crowley himself confessed as much in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. The play’s “self-deprecating humor,” he said, “was born out of a low self-esteem, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself.”

That may not jibe with our current culture of self-care and aggressive positivity, but it’s a real thing, and not just a dated one. We may not like to look at it, but the ways in which shame, insecurity, and self-directed anger and hatred eat away at us — and then fling themselves outward at undeserving targets because we can’t bear the gnawing anymore — aren’t the stuff of any particular time period, nor even of any specific marginalized sexuality. Like walking upright, writing plays, and waging war, self-loathing is a human condition, and when Jim Parsons’s Michael — the party’s host and the play’s turbulent center — collapses into his ex-boyfriend’s arms at night’s end, gasping, “If we … if we could just … learn, not to hate ourselves so much” — well, I felt it, and it hurt.

Given that there’s something still alive, and still painful, at the heart of The Boys in the Band, how does one explain the museum-piecey-ness that still overwhelms this production? Eight years ago, the Transport Group tackled the play, and as I watched Mantello’s high-budget gloss on it, I found myself wishing I had seen that 2010 version, directed by Jack Cummings III. Cummings’s scrappy company does smart, soulful, low-fi interpretations of American classic plays that, so far as I’ve seen, often succeed brilliantly in cracking through the carapace of that problematic, baggage-dragging behemoth we like to call the “canon.” Here, by contrast, Murphy and Mantello seem content to be mounting a glamorous case for Boys’ canonical status. They’re presenting an extravagant time capsule of sorts where even Parsons’s purple V-neck sweater and the black-turtlenecked promo shots of the cast hearken straight back to the iconography of the original production — as if to say, “Remember this thing. It was important. Here, we have brought it back for you, this time with more TV stars!”

Well, it was important. And the TV stars are pretty good! Parsons gives an inexhaustible, zingy performance as Michael, full of roiling nastiness and sadness (and on a recovering foot, too). Matt Bomer is quietly affecting as his ex and foil, the moody but kind-hearted Donald, and the cast’s starriest member, Zachary Quinto, is doing something rather fabulous with the drugged up, dripping-with-sarcasm birthday boy, Harold: He’s playing one note, a bass drone of lugubrious, bone-dry disaffection, which should feel unvaried and caricature-ish but somehow manages to walk right up to that cliff without tipping over it. And his last words to Michael, after the freshly fallen-off-the-wagon host has launched brutal emotional attacks on practically everyone at the party, is a wry little heartbreaker: “Oh, Michael … Thanks for the laughs. Call you tomorrow.”

It’s not the screen stars, though, who are consistently turning in the production’s most moving work. As Bernard — the group’s one black man, who gracefully endures both casual and drunkenly caustic racism — and as Emory, the most femme of the boys (and, here, the only other person of color), Michael Benjamin Washington and Robin de Jesús often feel like the show’s real heart. De Jesús’s energy is exhilarating: He laughs, prances, and refuses to tamp himself down when Alan (a tortured Brian Hutchison), Michael’s conservative former college roommate, crashes the party. He also shows deep wells of pity — he ends up feeling for the distressed Alan, who earlier socked him in the mouth in a burst of homophobic panic and rage — and a sincere willingness to listen and change. “Bernard, forgive me,” he begs, after Michael has lambasted Emory’s tendency to “Uncle Tom” his friend. “I’m sorry. I won’t ever say those things to you again.”

And Washington, in his turn, plays a man with much more under the surface than he’s letting on, a man who, unlike Michael, doesn’t have the luxury of lashing out. “I let [Emory] Uncle Tom me,” Bernard tells Michael, calmly but through gritted teeth: “I don’t like it from him and I don’t like it from me — but I do it to myself and I let him do it … We both got the short end of the stick — but I got a hell of a lot more than he did and he knows it … He can do it, Michael. I can do it. But you can’t do it.”

Emory and Bernard’s relationship feels particularly poignant, not to mention painful, in 2018. They often quietly support each other in the background — eventually, Emory physically holds up a wasted, heartbroken Bernard as they make their exit — standing apart in this group of white boys who are sniping and throwing shade in a ridiculously expensive apartment where the up-to-his-receding-hairline-in-debt Michael has earlier thrown Hermès sweaters on the floor.

And this is where some of the distance happens — in the production’s unrelenting opulence. The whole thing feels like a carefully packaged luxury item, from the casting to the necessarily limited run, from that Times fashion spread — which featured the cast wearing $1,000 polos and $5,000 jackets — to David Zinn’s wine-dark jewel-box of a set, a split-level apartment that’s rendered in crimsons and purples and shadowy panes of glass. Hugh Vanstone’s lights even frame this plush diorama in a square of glowing purple backlight, drawing a box around the action and making it “pop” — rendering it both more fabulous and more remote.

In a way, a production this shiny is always going to be more commemoration than eviscerating reinvestigation. There’s a giddy energy in the audience of the Booth Theatre, and every one of Crowley’s catty zingers is met with cheers and laughter, almost as if we’ve all gotten together to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. Perhaps The Boys in the Band helped pave the way for “Shante, you stay” (Mantello has argued that the play itself made it possible for people to criticize the play, and he’s got a point), but it’s also a very different creature. No one on this stage has yet followed through on Mama Ru’s famous mantra: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” And it seems a little strange that a story of fear and loathing is being met by an auditorium full of “Yas Kween” effervescence — not to mention unabashed enthusiasm for various cast members’ ripped physiques. At one point Bomer’s Donald enters and jokingly asks “Am I stunning?” and a friend told me that in the performance he saw, a woman behind him screamed, “Yes!”

Perhaps this is all to the good. To the actors who risked their careers to do The Boys in the Band in 1968, a packed Broadway house full of excited, supportive, here-for-it fans would probably be an incredible sight, and a profound one. But the question remains — with Boys and Angels running now and Second Stage’s Torch Song revival soon to join them — of where to find today’s unwieldy, controversial, imperfect, brilliant answers to these plays. While present-day Broadway continues to polish up the plays that broke years past, the plays that will break 2018 are more likely to be found, like the original Boys, beyond the moneyed edifices of midtown. Meanwhile, the arc of history is long, and let’s hope it continues to bend ever more toward fabulousness — and toward new, and newly contentious, adventures.

Theater Review: Can The Boys in the Band Work in 2018?