We're All Gay Now: The Boys in the Band on Netflix
The taboo-shattering gay drama gets a new production on the world's biggest stage.
A familiar feeling came over me within the first few minutes of watching The Boys in the Band: resentment. From the moment I laid eyes on the beautiful prewar duplex in which the action takes place, I knew I wanted it. Production designer Judy Becker has eschewed David Zinn's VIP-lounge-in-purgatory set from the recent Broadway revival, opting instead for retro realness (an effect beautifully complemented by Gene Serdena's meticulous decor). Everything about the apartment is a dream, from the recessed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to the iconic spiral staircase to the spacious terrace with direct access to the kitchen via a side alley. Darkly, I brooded, Why should someone as charmless as our protagonist have such an utterly charming abode?
If you're wondering how a real gay man in 2020 could resent the material possessions of a fictional one from 1968, perhaps you are unfamiliar with The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play about a circle of gay men who gather for a birthday party that turns into a poisonous affair thanks to a deadly mixture of old acquaintances, suppressed grudges, and booze. Resentment is the unspoken theme of the party (isn't it always?), and Crowley's portrayal of the ugly side of gay life won him no accolades from the kind of queer activists who prefer propaganda to art. Others have dismissed The Boys in the Band as a relic of a less enlightened age, before Stonewall, Ellen, Windsor, and Obergefell. They're wrong.
Thanks to producer Ryan Murphy, The Boys in the Band has gotten a second look in recent years, first in a 2018 Broadway revival, and now in a new Netflix film adaptation that reunites director Joe Mantello with the Broadway cast. Period production design and memorable performances make The Boys in the Band worth watching, but Crowley's incisive and shockingly relatable portrait of human nature demands repeat viewings.
Michael (Jim Parsons) is the inhabitant of the duplex, although he would privately confess that his comfortable lifestyle has left him deeply in debt (an important possibility to consider next time you covet thy neighbor's Instagram). His first guest is Donald (Matt Bomer), a housekeeper in serious therapy (ironically, Bomer's performance is the most even-tempered, if forgettable, of the group). Screaming queen Emory (the brave and hilarious Robin de Jesús) soon arrives with the lascivious Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Larry's fortysomething homebody boyfriend Hank (Tuc Watkins). Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) arrives bearing wine and gifts. Throughout the night, Emory (who is Puerto Rican) and Bernard (who is Black) engage in sassy and racially charged repartee that is liable to make many white liberals further blanch (but will feel quite familiar to anyone who actually knows any Black or Puerto Rican gay men).
Michael's old college pal, Alan (Brian Hutchinson), is an unexpected and ostensibly heterosexual guest — but when he calls Michael in tears, Michael invites him over. Emory has hired a handsome yet dim hustler (a delightfully earnest Charlie Carver) as a gift for the birthday boy, Harold (Zachary Quinto), who is naturally the last to arrive. "You're stoned and you're late," Michael irritably observes as he swallows his first of many gins. Harold's sharp retort immediately lets Michael know that he won't tolerate any of his mounting hostility. Good times and cake inevitably give way to a cruel and unusual party game that leaves everyone stunned.
In my review of the Broadway production, I hailed Mantello's expert staging of subtle group dynamics. Here, the camera gives the director even more tools to tell that story, and Mantello brilliantly takes advantage: As the men dance to Burt Bacharach in one of the few genuinely happy scenes, the camera pans to reveal Alan, framed in the bedroom doorway, looking devastated (perhaps because he is not dancing with them). We are given a view of the men's lives beyond the apartment, so we can see Larry picking up a cute guy and taking him to Julius's, where he is inevitably discovered by a weary Hank. Hazy flashbacks energize the monologue-heavy second act: On stage, Washington was able to conjure Bernard's childhood as a housekeeper for a rich white family by lapsing into a singsongy Southern drawl (that excellent performance remains). But on film, Mantello builds on Washington's solid foundation through glimpses of young Bernard skinny-dipping in the moonlight with the son of the family. The moment is chill-inducing in its beauty.
Of course, Michael isn't here for that: He wants confession and humiliation. Parsons pursues his objective with prosecutorial zeal, browbeating his guests like Nancy Grace on dexamethasone. He is the engine driving this party off a cliff, and only Harold seems to anticipate it. As Harold, Quinto delivers every line in an ennui-drenched mid-Atlantic dialect, punctuating each sentence with a swallow of Pouilly-Fuissé. Willy Wonka-like, he passively watches the proceedings, occasionally delivering a side barb until it comes time for him to deliver his final, crushing monologue.
Why are any of these men still friends? Without over-explaining (which is the death of good storytelling), Crowley leaves tantalizing clues about their relationships. He hints at the evolution of lovers to friends to frenemies, a trajectory that so many gay men have followed and continue to follow. The miasma of lost potential and abortive romance hangs heavy in the air, yet that seems preferable to the crisp bite of solitude.
Lest you find all of this unbearably depressing, the screenplay (a collaboration between Crowley and Ned Martel) offers a parting gift from the playwright, who died in March. A brand-new final sequence depicts the men finding consolation from the horrors of the night where they can, whether it be in friendship, sex, God, or a good book. It's not happily ever after, but it will do for another day. And as this miserable year draws to a close, that is a sentiment to which practically anyone can relate — gay, straight, or otherwise.
It has become fashionable in social justice discourse to claim that the majority can never really understand the plight of the minority, that it's not our job to educate you, and that unflattering depictions of the inner workings of a minority culture risk exploitation. While it is true that the vast majority of New York theatergoers circa 1968 must have gazed upon The Boys in the Band with the same fascination and pity one reserves for a fight among Komodo dragons in the zoo, viewers in 2020 will be more familiar with the sass and shade that seasons Crowley's dialogue. When they see Larry's bottle of poppers or Emory's snapping fan, they will recognize the censer and crozier of our peculiar church. RuPaul has taught the children well, along with a thousand other ambassadors of gay male culture (all surely familiar with The Boys in the Band) who saw it as their job to educate you.
Most importantly, even the straightest of viewers are likely to see elements of themselves in these undeniably human performances, the elaborate defense mechanisms they reveal, and the characters' desperate clawing for a happiness that remains just out of reach. Despite our ever more complex taxonomy of identities, it is still possible for art to connect on a universal level — and The Boys in the Band proves it.