Hypothetically, Mart Crowley could have written a breezy romp about eight gay men at a birthday party where everyone has a ball. But it wouldn’t have been drama. Instead, in the free-love late 60s where homosexual acts were criminal, Crowley uttered a cri de coeur with tremendous style and grace, an existential scream with perfect pitch. The Boys in the Band may not have the literary aspirations of one clear influence, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but it has something that Edward Albee’s classic does not: staying power as a document of its time and, weirdly, a predictor of society to come.
The last phrase may strike readers as wrong. After all, isn’t Boys a garish, bile-drenched portrait of gay urbanites filled with self-loathing, their flirty camaraderie shattered by a straight, uninvited guest? The setting is midtown New York in 1968, one year before the Stonewall riots would herald a new gay pride that would no longer accept bigotry or censure. Crowley’s men are only proud behind closed doors. His characters run the gamut from flaming, wisecracking Emory (Robin De Jesús) to straight-acting Hank (Tuc Watkins), a schoolteacher leaving his wife for commercial artist Larry (Andrew Rannells). The slang (“Oh, Mary” Emory is forever sighing) and pop pursuits (dancing to Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”) are last-century. And yet, Boys’ sassy, exuberant queerness – tormented though it may be – feels very today.
In the half-century since Boys’ premiere, American culture has been shaped by LGBTQ sensibility: glam rock; plays by Fierstein, Kramer and Kushner; Ellen DeGeneres; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; South Park; Brokeback; TV producer Ryan Murphy’s neo-camp oeuvre – all make gay humor and non-cis-het sexuality very fashionable. (Murphy is lead producer on this revival.) Advances in marriage equality and trans visibility have “queered” social attitudes as never before. Maybe we can be a little more relaxed and accepting of a theatrical artifact like Boys without worrying if it’s good for the community.
One senses that Crowley knew and loved each one of these men, however weak and spiteful he may act. Joe Mantello’s starry and glossy revival maximizes the script’s angsty impudence. As waspish host Michael, Jim Parsons tempers his innate sweetness with a complex portrait of a narcissist beset by self-hatred. Matt Bomer adds warmth and solidity as Michael’s friend, Donald, also neurotic but kinder and more grounded. Zachary Quinto lobs some of the night’s best zingers as birthday boy Harold, a self-described “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy.” Brian Hutchison neatly navigates the pathetic but crucial role of Alan, Michael’s former college buddy and a crypto-closet-case. Rannells brings his swaggering charisma to Larry, the semi-openly gay professional who might age the best of this lot.
Not everyone gets their due, perhaps. You want to learn more about Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the play’s lone African American character, or even the dimwitted, one-joke hustler Cowboy (Charlie Carver). Still, Crowley squeezes specificity and vitality into every line and every bit of business. It’s an exemplary piece of naturalistic playwriting, with a masterful control of pacing and tone. And it’s howlingly funny, packed with bitchy one-liners that help to mitigate the slide into darkness as Michael gets drunker and the party goes south.
My optimistic reading of the play is perhaps easier to make because of the celebrity ensemble. Mantello and Murphy have assembled an exceedingly handsome, likeable and sympathetic group of men. If one saw the play acted by a cast of unknowns (as in the excellent 1970 film adaptation), one might feel less affectionate and forgiving. And set designer David Zinn places them in a glossy, bi-level set that resembles an idealized bachelor pad Michael envisions in his mind but couldn’t afford (not that he pays his bills). In other words, the production bristles with money, fame and prestige – things the characters don’t actually have a lot of.
Still, in the play, as on the street today, people land everywhere on the spectrum, from traditional cis-male and cis-female behavior, to trans blurring of gender scripts. “Macho” and “sissy” signaling has not disappeared; it’s just understood as constructed and politically loaded. Above all, Boys in the Band embraces diversity, affirming that there’s no monolithic way to be gay. Who knows what millennial audiences – LGBTQ or not – will make of the show. I think they may enjoy its zest and fire. Boys is a period piece, but time has healed some of its psychic wounds. These days, many of us are playing in the band.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.