Unlike one guest at a late 1960s New York City birthday party packed with gay men in Mart Crowley’s landmark play The Boys in the Band, the story’s message can’t be accused of being in the closet. “If we could just learn to not hate ourselves quite so very much,” moans Michael, the unhappy host who steers his shindig from booze and zippy banter to soul-bruising bashing. The point? Self-loathing can be weaponized. Well, yeah. Still, that’s as true today as it was when the show debuted Off-Broadway in 1968.
The Netflix adaptation of the 50th-anniversary Broadway revival, streaming on Sept. 30, leads to laughter and wincing and, finally, longing for a little more mystery. The script, by Crowley, who died in March, and Ned Cartel, can be balder than Michael (Jim Parsons), whose rapidly receding hairline has him freaked. A question that looms large in this slice (and dice) of gay life before same-sex marriage: What does Michael inscribe on his present to sour birthday boy Harold (Zachary Quinto, MVP thanks to a quietly fierce performance) that elicits near-sweetness? It might help explain how, despite all of the abuse, Harold’s parting words to Michael are, “Call you tomorrow.”
Who knows. Not the audience. Not the rest of the revelers who basically get one character trait apiece, which gets underscored in a quick opening montage created for the film. There’s neurotic Donald (Matt Bomer); flamboyant Emory (an ace Robin de Jesus), whose mean streak shows as his teases accommodating Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who’s black; and straitlaced Hank (Tuc Watkins), who’s left his wife and kids for bed-hopping Larry (Andrew Rannells). Also present are a hustler with a six-pack and single-digit IQ (Charlie Carver) and Michael’s married, supposedly straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison), whose presence leads to a tonal about-face. The shift comes at the midway point of the two-hour film. The second half gets repetitive with every spin of a rotary phone dial, and added flashbacks don’t remedy that.
Joe Mantello, who directed the 2018 Tony Award-winning revival of The Boys in the Band, wisely reunited the stage’s out-and-proud ensemble. Though he tends to hold close-ups a beat too long, Mantello’s handsome film is filled with fine-tuned performances and period details. Production designer Judy Becker deserves applause for Michael’s art-, books- and junk-stuffed duplex apartment. This film arrives 50 years after William Friedkin’s big-screen take on the play. Flaws and all, Boys offers food for thought on love, sex and friendship. “It takes a fairy to make something pretty,” Emory memorably observes. Life – fairy-dusted or not – isn’t always pretty.