Netflix recently revived Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play, “The Boys in the Band,” one of the first productions to portray gay characters living gay lives and discussing contemporary gay issues. After premiering off-Broadway in 1968, William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) directed the film adaptation in 1970. In this new version — utilizing the same cast from the recent Broadway revival — producer Ryan Murphy and director Joe Mantello stay true to Crowley’s original script while finding subtle ways to breathe new life into this monumental piece of LGBT history.
Michael (Jim Parsons) and Donald (Matt Bomer) plan a birthday party in their spacious New York loft for their catty frienemy Harold (Zachary Quinto). Their other guests include Larry and Alan (Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins), a couple grappling with the prospect of opening up their relationship, the quiet African-American librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) and Emory (Robin de Jesus), who refuses to hide his fabulousness while surviving the bigotry of the late 1960s.
Soon arrives Michael’s old college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison), a straight, married man who drops in unannounced and who has no knowledge of Michael’s sexual orientation.
Crowley is not shy about the influence playwright Tennessee Williams had on this production. The tension simmers in every scene until it eventually builds into a crescendo where characters unravel and reveal their ugly truths. What this play and the subsequent adaptations succeed in doing is to temper the melodrama with a light touch of self-deprecating humor. As the party drags on, the characters lose their inhibitions, and vicious, sometimes terrible things are said to each other, but we never get the sense that anyone has crossed an unforgivable line. The story always remains about friends unloading their insecurities in snide judgment, while struggling with unnecessary feelings of shame and self-hate.
Parsons, known for his long-standing role on television’s “The Big Bang Theory,” carries the weight of this narrative as the character with the fullest arc within the plot. He does well enough with the role, even if sometimes he projects an unnecessarily large performance for the people in the back of his imaginary auditorium. Likewise, Quinto’s take on the brash and fork-tongued Harold is mannered and costume-driven, but it serves the film in that not-as-intentional-as-Ryan-Murphy-thinks kind of way. Bomer and Rannells contrast as they blend in very naturally in period attire and speaking with slurry, drunken confidence.
Director Mantello tries to open up the single-location, staged quality of the play by intercutting strategically placed B-roll and occasionally fading into flashback with voice over to enhance the dialogue.
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the 1970 original, but this adaptation of “The Boys in the Band” is a worthy recreation with a diverse cast and will likely jive better for a newer audience. The complexity of the characters and the depth of their plight rings just as accurate today as it did in 1968. While this version doesn’t divert enough from the previous adaption to stake a definitive claim on the text, there’s a bounce and skip in this remake that’s both as warm and inviting as it is prickly and conflicted.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.