Maybe it’s time to let the band break up for good after this version. I’m not sure my queer heart could take any more iterations of Mart Crowley’s dispiriting The Boys in the Band. Released Off-Broadway in 1968, and adapted into a 1970 feature film by maverick auteur William Friedkin, the play focuses on the inner lives of a group of gay men during that period. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine a story so raw and revealing about homosexuality garner mainstream attention fifty years ago. By some miracle, straight people took notice. Crowley showed them firsthand how their bigotry inflicted insurmountable trauma and self-hatred. If you can’t appeal to your oppressors’ compassion, the next course of action is to drown them in their own guilt.
The play’s trailblazing legacy endures half a century later. In 2018, Broadway legend Joe Mantello directed a revival incorporating actors who identify as LGBTQ+ in real life. It cannot be overstated how significant this hiring method is. Hollywood typically casts heterosexual men in homosexual roles, but authenticity triumphed to preserve the integrity of Crowley’s show. Moreover, it gave actors with far fewer opportunities — because of their sexual orientation — the chance to radiate star caliber.
Now, two years later, that same revival cast and director make the leap from stage to screen. Thanks to Netflix, younger generations can experience Crowley’s groundbreaking material for the first time. The most troubling realization is that despite the immense amount of time passed, the personal struggles presented remain just as challenging to the gay community today. The Boys in the Band holds up the mirror to our worst features while reminding us that our best attributes continue to be suppressed by heteronormative society.
The unforgettable evening of drunk, disheartening confessions occurs in a fancy New York City loft on the Upper East Side. A group of gay men gathers to celebrate a friend’s birthday on the host’s rooftop terrace, overlooking a city that constantly looks down on them. However, the night’s discourse proves the gravitational pull of discrimination keeps them well below the rest of free America. Even in a designated safe space to be themselves, gender-conforming bias, internalized homophobia, racism, and religion intrude on an event that meant to celebrate pride, not castigate it.
Performing hosting duties with acerbic effort is Michael (Jim Parsons), a recovering alcoholic who still attends Sunday mass as insurance in case Hell is real. Over the course of the soiree, Michael vacillates between empathy and monstrosity, several drinks deep coaxing the latter. His self-loathing explodes around his guests in vicious ways, often announcing itself with every unkind word imaginable. No racial epithet or homophobic slur is off the table for Michael when his alcoholism is in full swing. In fact, as reprehensible as Michael is, he’s about the only member of the ensemble that’s given nuance and human complexity. Producer Ryan Murphy and Joe Mantello should have made more effort to deepen the rest of the characters. Instead, they remain hollow representations of different subsets within the LGBTQ+ community.
The participants include Donald (Matt Bomer), birthday boy Harold (Zachary Quinto), couple Larry and Hank (Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watson, respectively), hired escort Cowboy (Charlie Carver), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Emory (Robin de Jesús), and Michael’s former college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison), whose true sexuality is thankfully less of a mystery in this version. As drama would have it, this band creates quite the cacophony. The tipping point occurs when a visibly uncomfortable Alan physically assaults Emory simply because of his effeminate nature. Alan foolishly thinks he’s warding off the biggest emission of “gayness” in his vicinity like it’s some disease he’ll catch. As it turns out, Alan isn’t the only one who cannot stand the presence of others confident in their biological selves.
Bernard and Emory are given the least development, though it’s commendable that Mantello doesn’t shy away from the racism that occurs within the gay community. Michael and the rest, save for Emory, treat Bernard like a token Black figure in their orbit, who’s mainly there because of whom he sleeps with and not because of the color of his skin. Furthermore, his entire subplot revolves around a hopeless romantic crusade to let the white son of his mother’s former boss know he loves him. That is not agency — it’s a plot device to keep a low-priority character in check.
Meanwhile, Emory is viewed as the clown of the group, presented with stereotypical feminine flair. It’s done for performative purposes, negating the reality that so many gay men are comfortable gender-bending or even gender non-conformity. It’s unusual but not surprising that when events turn somber, Emory suddenly becomes more masculine. I wish Mantello and Murphy would be consistent with LGBTQ+ portrayals, not pick and choose which traits to give them depending on the scenario. This sort of inconsistent characterization taints the production’s verisimilitude, subtracting from the palpable atmosphere of disharmony and dejection.
Larry and Hank’s issues are at least given a platform for hot topic discussion affecting the gay community at present: the debate between monogamy and open relationships. Their argument brings up salient points on both ends, though what’s critical is how strong the bond needs to be between two loving partners before making such a big decision. Conversations like these hopefully illustrate to more conservative audiences that monogamy is not synonymous with morality — it is a private and personal choice between consenting adults, just like any other. Ultimately, The Boys in the Band works better when it covers ground the gay community currently walk on. A bolder artistic move would have been to set the play in modern times, rather than produce a false sense of progressiveness.