When Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band," the granddaddy of gay plays, first appeared off-Broadway, it offered an inside peek into what had been consigned to the shadows: gay male life as it is experienced outside the closet.
The characters in this 1968 drama, New York friends gathered for a birthday celebration, slurp cocktails, trade bitchy repartee, assemble into a chorus line, flirt, flame out and throw fits. The psychodrama is relentless, but no one commits suicide, the traditional end for homosexuals in plays and movies, so it was considered progress.
A year after "The Boys in the Band" debuted on stage, the Stonewall riots would usher in the gay liberation movement. As groundbreaking as Crowley's play was in bringing visibility to a subculture that was ridiculed when not being ignored, the work was already being dismissed as retrograde by the time the film version came out in 1970.
Crowley's campy wisecracks resounded in gay bars across America for years, but an ambivalence prevailed. Between the indulgence of flamboyant stereotypes and the internalized homophobia of Michael, the alcoholic protagonist and psychological arsonist, the drama only seemed to compound unflattering caricatures.
But Crowley was actually condemning society for making love between men the dirtiest secret of all. Vito Russo went so far as to declare in "The Celluloid Closet," his irreplaceable 1981 book on homosexuality in the movies, that "The Boys in the Band" made the "best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form."
As I texted my gay BFF after watching the new Netflix version of "The Boys in the Band," which reunites the cast of Joe Mantello's Tony-winning 2018 Broadway revival, I realized Crowley's landmark work is both dated and eternal, a period piece that still has something urgent to say. The conditions have improved for LGBTQ people in the last half-century, but discrimination and homophobia persist. Crowley's work maps out the internalization of this toxic brew of intolerance, the way it seeps into the fabric of gay identity and corrodes from within.
With a screenplay by Crowley and Ned Martel, this handsome remake is directed by Mantello at an entertaining clip. Jim Parsons stars as Michael, the host of the all-male soiree who tries to conceal his self-hatred under Hermes cashmere that still isn't paid off. Zachary Quinto plays Harold, the birthday boy who forthrightly describes himself as a "32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy," making clear that no one, not even sharp-tongued Michael, is going to be able to wound him with a cutting remark.
Lighting up a joint as he settles into the festive turbulence, Harold presides as a choral counterweight, parrying Michael's caustic thrusts with his own savage truths. Michael has fallen off the wagon after a surprise visit from his supposedly straight college friend, Alan (played with sorrowful gruffness by Brian Hutchison). Agitated and embarrassed, Michael unleashes his rancor on his guests in a manner that could give Martha a run for her money in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - a palpable influence on Crowley's drama.
The hostility in "The Boys in the Band" is not only ugly but also dramatically confining. Michael's viciousness loses some of its psychological nuance when it kicks into high gear. The character begins to resemble a plot device as he works feverishly to intensify the static situation of a birthday party gone awry.
Parsons doesn't always seem perfectly cast, but he gives us a powerful glimpse of Michael's horror of aging, when, catching sight of himself in the mirror, he turns his head as though he were a vampire sensing glimmers of dawn. He subtly connects Michael's accommodating friendship with Alan, who makes no bones about his distaste for male effeminacy, to Michael's own self-loathing. Yet the behavior of this divided, semi-lapsed Catholic gay man grows contrived when he's awash in gin. Crowley's somewhat monotonous writing needs more subtle delineation in performance.