“Thanks for the laughs,” says Harold, whose disorderly birthday celebration is the occasion on which the men in “The Boys in the Band” gather for an evening of cutting barbs, bottomless cocktails and occasional soul-searching. Sarcasm drips from every syllable of that farewell, which is delivered with serpentine silkiness by Zachary Quinto in the new Broadway production of Mart Crowley’s landmark play. Audiences attending this star-drenched, glossy evening, featuring a cast of terrific actors led by Quinto and Jim Parsons as the host, Michael, will probably second Harold’s emotion — while holding the sarcasm.
Certainly director Joe Mantello’s smashing production of Crowley’s dark comedy, about the once-insular world of gay men in New York, sustains a savage humor from start to finish. More surprising, perhaps, is that the actors, under Mantello’s exquisite direction, probe the tender spots in Crowley’s time capsule of a play with a sensitivity that resonates even now, as the play celebrates its 50th birthday. (Harold is turning a mere 33.)
“The Boys in the Band” is something of a bedrock of gay drama. When it was first produced off-Broadway in 1968 it was a succès de scandale. Critics admired it, but poked and prodded at it as if it were a strange, alien experience to see the lives of gay men depicted in such uncompromising terms. (As indeed it was.)
But for understandable reasons “The Boys in the Band” stirred some unease as the years passed: Was it good for the gays? In more enlightened times, the play’s depiction of a handful of gay men as, variously, promiscuous, drug- and alcohol-addicted, and immured in either self-delusion, self-denial or, most scathingly, self-hate, might seem shallow and steeped in pernicious stereotype.
Bravely, the new production sticks pretty closely to the original, not even sanitizing the flippant racism directed at the one black character. (Some trimming has been done, and a few cosmetic changes have been made here and there: a reference to the operetta “The New Moon” has been changed to the less arcane “Funny Girl.”) And with a few exceptions, Crowley’s lacerating wit still raises big laughs. But even more impressive is how, even in a much more enlightened era, the characters’ battles with their inner demons — battles that are played out in conflicts with even their closest friends — can sting the heart.
Parsons presides over the festivities with consummate skill, neatly delineating Michael’s growing anxiety and its grim consequences. As he scampers around preparing for the dinner — taking place in his absurdly but deliciously deluxe apartment, designed by David Zinn, where the ghost of Halston would happily reside — Michael exchanges news with his first guest and best pal Donald, played with brisk naturalness by Matt Bomer, who also provides the evening’s first course of the evening’s beefcake as he strips down to shower.
The kernel of the drama arrives via a phone call: Michael’s old college roommate Alan (a nicely bewildered and beleaguered Brian Hutchison) has turned up unexpectedly with an urgent need to see Michael, which throws the host into a lather of distress, made expertly comic by Parsons as his voice rises a notch or two. What will the straight-arrow Alan, who does not know that Michael is gay, make of the exotic fauna who soon find themselves strewn over the red-velvet couches, trading mock insults and swapping raw sexual anecdotes?
Michael firmly tells his guests to can the camp when Alan arrives, but he might as well tell them to stop breathing. For these men, “camping” is conversation — and, of course, a kind of cultural home in which they can relax, within a larger world that denies them their truth. Leading the charge with his fan aflutter is Emory, played with ebullient zest by Robin De Jesús, who manages to land a laugh with every line, and then some.
A slight tension mists the air when Larry (Andrew Rannells) and his lover Hank (Tuc Watkins) arrive. Larry has eyes for everyone, while the suited, more sober-minded Larry clearly only has eyes for Larry, and feels like a fish out of water in this group. So in a sense does Bernard (the excellent Michael Benjamin Washington), who is black and subject to teasing but still nasty racial epithets by Emory.
When Harold finally arrives, he too dispenses withering commentary from a panther-like perch on the couch. As played by Quinto — in what almost seems like an homage to the performance of Leonard Frey in the original staging, captured in the movie version — Harold drawls out a smooth array of put-you-in-your-place lines as if tossing fish to eager seals. He also appraises, with a cool nonchalance, the gift that Emory has given him: the hustler called Cowboy, played with good-hearted daffiness by Charlie Carver.
Gradually the evening moves into darker territory, fueled by Michael’s decision to nose-dive off the wagon. As the drink takes over, his easy geniality turns unsettlingly into viperish attacks on his guests, and eventually an impromptu game that brings on the evening’s last course: a heaping plate of soul-baring.
The play slides into a lower gear at this point — and dapples in some ripe sentimentality (“I for one need an insulin injection,” cracks Harold) — as the characters trot out their demons for window display. But the actors manage the transition beautifully: Washington’s Bernard movingly turns from confident to audibly subservient when he makes a phone call to the (white) family his mother used to work for. Rannells delivers with sharp ferocity Larry’s ardent defense of his right to “freedom,” by which he means freedom to sleep with whomever he likes. De Jesús is no less fine when his turn comes to move from flashy quipping to fervent emotionalism.
During these passages, the other characters sometimes seem to be standing around like statues, although Mantello rearranges the statuary at regular intervals. Nevertheless the tension remains high, particularly when Michael’s strafing of his guests with bile is turned back upon him. as Harold gathers himself from the couch and denounces his friend as “a sad and pathetic man,” riddled with self-contempt — an accusation that reduces Michael to sobbing into Donald’s arms: “If we could just not hate ourselves just quite so very, very much.” Michael’s slow descent from geniality to antagonism to painful self-awareness is rendered by Parsons with an ease that surely belies its difficulty: it’s a marvel of a performance.
Today we can watch the play in the comfortable knowledge that the self-hatred so vividly depicted here is the inevitable reflection of the oppression and contempt directed at gay men and women in American culture of the time. Sure, we may still have qualms about some retrograde ideas on display — the mom-and-dad-made-me-gay bits raise an eye-roll — but Mantello and his expert cast manage to make us see past the outmoded tropes to the wellsprings of truth from which they emerged. All while keeping us in side-stitches, too, a mere half-century later.
“The Boys in the Band” opened at the Booth Theatre on May 31, 2018.
Creative: Written by Mart Crowley; Directed by Joe Mantello; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.
Producers: Produced by David Stone, Scott Rudin, Patrick Catullo, Aaron Glick and Ryan Murphy.
Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin De Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins.