When The Boys in the Band opened Off-Broadway back in April 1968, I was friendly with a songwriter named Michael. He happened to be a raging alcoholic. I use the cliché “raging alcoholic” pointedly, because when Michael became inebriated, his rage was impossible to control.
So when I saw the original production of Mart Crowley’s side-spitting, groundbreaking play 50 years ago, and a slightly effete protagonist named Michael entered — a character trying to stay on the wagon but falling off it — I thought I was watching an accurate presentation of someone I instantly knew. Art imitated, with astounding precision, a slice of life.
With The Boys in the Band celebrating its 50th birthday in its first-ever run on Broadway, you will understand if I retain my initial response to it. After those 50 years — years in which AIDS devastated the gay community and claimed five of the actors in the original production — I also understand that Crowley’s work reflects the damaged lives that many homosexual men led in those days, and may very well still lead today.
In the play, Crowley gathers a group of friends one rowdy night to the ultra-swanky, David Zinn-designed Upper East Side Manhattan apartment of, once more, a Michael (Jim Parsons) who reminded me of Michael. In a maroon-hued, two-level environment, they acknowledge the 32nd birthday of Harold (Zachary Quinto, making one of the great late entrances of the theater).
Once assembled, the boys indulge in huge dollops of hilariousness, but there’s also a palpable tension in the air that prompts eventual infighting between and among them. (Thomas Schall provides fight direction). Much of the verbal and physical combat is instigated Michael, as he ups his alcohol intake, or by Harold, an incorrigible cynic who, for all of his constant hauteur, does go for Cowboy (Charlie Carver), the rent-boy birthday gift purchased for him by Emory (Robin de Jesus), his hyper-swishy friend.
The biggest hitch in the proceedings comes with the arrival of Alan (Brian Hutchison). He was Michael’s college roommate and may have left his wife. As Alan is presumably a straight man, Michael is concerned that the party atmosphere will easily give away the secret he’s withheld.
But it’s not a secret long, given that Alan comes through the front door to spot — in a line dance — Michael and Emory, plus not-swishy Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the only character of color in the play.
The laughter overflows, but soon a nasty competition heightens the tension. Especially when Michael insists they all play a telephone game requiring them to call someone they’ve always loved but to whom they’ve never been vocal about their feelings. (One charge long leveled at Crowley is that he copies the get-the-guest pastime that Edward Albee used so successfully in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and in the 1965 John Schlesinger film Darling.)
Among those forced to endure Michael’s bibulous unpleasantness are Hank (Tuc Watkins), who’s left his marriage to come out of the closet, and Larry, with whom Hank is living while balking at Larry’s promiscuity. (In the liberated 1970s, many gay men declared that not being promiscuous was letting the team down.)
Given the above synopsis and the buzz around this Joe Mantello-directed Broadway revival, you may wonder — or conclude — that Crowley’s comedy-drama is dated. Superficially, it is, to the extent that when the cruel phone game is on, there’s much rotary dialing and busy signals. Looking more deeply, is The Boys in the Band truly dated? Or, more kindly, is it a “period piece”? Perhaps the answer depends on whether we can still relate to Crowley’s self-loathing characters in an era when many gay men are much more comfortable in, and with, their sexuality. How do you react this succinct remark by Michael: “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse”?
Here’s news: the comment wasn’t true then of every gay man’s perspective any more than it’s true now. Gay men may be more comfortable in, and with, their sexuality, but this does not mean internalized homophobia has vanished. For this reason alone, to dismiss The Boys in the Band is to deny it.
Also keep in mind that Michael, Harold, Hank, Emory and Donald (Matt Bomer) — the one party-goer best disposed to put up with Michael’s guff — came before AIDS and Stonewall and same-sex marriage as the law of the land. These were men shaped by intolerance, fomented within and without. The real question, then, is whether gay men — whether all Americans — are changed. We know better. To think otherwise is foolish.
What not to do with The Boys in the Band is consign it to some category of nostalgia, the “niche-opus.” What spectacularly helps is enjoying the return of a screamingly funny play with a tough-minded viewpoint that’s acted with vitality and immediacy, especially by Parsons (arm jauntily akimbo), Quinto (sniffing the air like someone needs deodorant) and Bomer (buff in his briefs). Show me a play about unhappy homosexuals, and I’ll show you a terrific — and very current — The Boys in the Band.