You never want to be the first person to arrive at a party or the last person to leave. In the case of Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band, you will die for an invitation to this party but then you will be itching to head for the door when no one is looking for fear of having an emotional breakdown.
Mart Crowley’s play debuted before The Stonewall Riots in 1968, and it was a sensation. It was revived in 2018 by Mantello with an all-star out cast including Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, and Zachary Quinto, so when Ryan Murphy decided to produce it for Netflix, the entire cast of the Tony-winning revival was on board. The result is a volatilely hilarious romp, a stage-to-screen adaptation worthy of the original text. Mantello’s The Boys in the Band should be celebrated for securing the heart and rage of Crowley’s play.
Jim Parsons’ Michael is throwing a birthday party for his friend, Harold (Quinto), but he has yet to show up. The rest of the guests have already assembled: Bomer’s Donald seems closest to Michael and he provides the host with emotional strength. Larry (Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) are seemingly always at the end of a squabble or about to start one. Robin de Jesús’ Emory couldn’t turn down his flame even if he wanted to, and he has a playful time jabbing with Bernard, played by Michael Benjamin Washington. Emory’s gift to Harold is what every gay guy wants: Charlie Carver as a doofy himbo affectionately dubbed as Midnight Cowboy.
The gaggle has a good time dancing and drinking even though Michael tells Donald that he hasn’t touched a drop or smoked a cigarette for five months. Everything comes to a halt when Michael’s straight college buddy, Alan (Brian Hutchison), tearfully calls Michael up and tells him that he’s in the city and asks to have a drink. Alan is an invasion–a scotch-soaked man who doesn’t belong in their midst despite Michael’s hospitality–and he puts everyone on edge whether they want to admit it or not. Michael has never come out to Alan and he seems hellbent on not revealing that part of himself.
Before Alan arrived, this party was a space for this brood to let off some steam. They can tease one another and call each other faggot or sissy or effeminate and it would just be playful jabbing, but there is some darkness to everything. It’s amplified more when the booze is guzzled and a straight man gives himself the authority to call someone derogatory names. This is before the Gay Liberation Movement, so it was acceptable to call a sissy a faggot to his face without any repercussions or consequences.
The Boys in the Band has always allowed its characters to walk a fine line between sass and self-loathing. Gay men are taught to hate something about themselves, and, for some, that feeling never dissipates. Parsons’ performance, while it can be big and over-the-top, never loses its emotional core, especially because Michael has denied himself his earthly delights for almost half a year. He’s the ringleader of this train to hell, so his Michael takes a gleeful delight in forcing his guests to call someone they never expressed their love for. It’s almost as if he is giving his friends permission to hurt themselves before someone else can.
Mantello fleshes out Crowley’s play in gorgeous, forbidden flashbacks. As each partygoer picks up the phone, the pain they feel is beautifully photographed and they always pull away just at the right moment. Since these men played these characters for almost 100 performances on Broadway, Mantello is very confident in his actors. I imagine that if you saw all of these men on stage at one time, it would be difficult to gauge everyone’s reaction to everything, and Mantello doesn’t shy away from cutting back and forth as the party progresses. The production design, by Judy Becker, is flawless. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of that apartment. There are stacks of books everywhere and I wanted to ask Michael about where he got every piece of art and every chachki. It’s not showing art direction but it’s well-crafted and everything has so much history in it.
Robin de Jesús was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Emory, and his laugh swells your heart. He gives Emory dignity and confidence and never compromises himself for anyone. Michael Benjamin Washington might not be as famous as his co-stars, but his performance leaves a big impact. When he makes his phone call, Mantello steadies the camera on his handsome face. Quinto plays Harold like an alien from another world, his voice slow and his eyes darting around the room. Bomer is a quiet presence, but a sturdy friend to Parsons’ Michael. If only we all could age as gracefully as he will.
The Boys in the Band could feel like an artifact, but Mantello and the actors give it such life that it is vital. We are at a time when projects like Pose and Circus of Books ask us to reflect on where we have been. This film allows these men to be emotional and sad, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
The Boys in the Band will debut on Netflix on September 30.