Festivities are certainly in order for this superbly mounted 50th anniversary production of “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s breakthrough 1968 play about Manhattan gay life — still largely underground in an era that preceded both Stonewall and AIDS. Not that everyone in the play seems up for a party. “If there’s one thing I’m not ready for, it’s five screaming queens singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” declares Michael, in Jim Parsons’ endearing performance as the heart and soul of the play’s rambunctious birthday gathering.
Well, we beg to disagree. If there’s one thing this staid theater season is more than ready for, it’s a motley crew of gay friends getting together to celebrate. Harold, the insouciant birthday boy, takes his sweet time arriving at the festivities; but in this staging — directed by Joe Mantello and produced by a team that includes TV titan Ryan Murphy — the character is played with such withering wit by Zachary Quinto that the wait is entirely worth it.
Resplendent in era-appropriate skinny pants and heeled boots (David Zinn did the viciously accurate costuming), Quinto knows how to take over a room. Affecting a languorous gait that suits Harold’s superior cock-of-the-walk attitude, Quinto strolls over to one of the banquettes on the screaming-red living room set (also by Zinn, and equally cruel) and arranges himself as if on a throne. Quinto is drolly regal, and as his subjects, we’re just grateful he doesn’t make us take a knee.
The rest of the guests, all played with intelligence and commitment, are standard types, among them one girly-boy (Robin de Jesus), one sweet African American guy (Michael Benjamin Washington), a pair of bickering lovers (Tuc Watkins and Andrew Rannells) and an adorable “birthday present” (Charlie Carver). But they’re so well played under Mantello’s knowing direction, they could easily pass for the usual mismatched guests at any gay party in the pre-liberated era of the late 60s and early 70s.
Crowley is a master of the bitchy one-liner, so the play is littered with quotable bon mots, some of them surprisingly sweet to our older, more jaded ears. Michael, an obvious stand-in for the playwright, gets the lion’s share of the nasty laughs, but behind every joke is a hint of the bitter self-loathing that triggered it. It takes courage to admit that you’re desperately lonely. Making a joke of loneliness, as Michael is wont to do — “Well, one thing you have to say for masturbation, you certainly don’t have to look your best” — takes the sting out of it.
One of the admirable things about Michael is his brutal honesty. (“There’s nothing quite as good as feeling sorry for yourself, is there?”) Or is it cruelty? There’s certainly something mean about his insistence on playing a malicious game that takes this friendly party in a disturbing direction. Brandishing a white behemoth of a period telephone like a loaded gun, he forces each of his guests to call the one (preferably straight) person he has loved – and tell him so.
Larry (Rannells, a charmer) and Hank (Watkins, a hunk) turn the tables on Michael and manfully transform his nasty game into an intimate moment of honest truth. But poor Emory (de Jesus) is forced to humiliate himself by calling the schoolboy crush he secretly adored. “I may be nellie, but I’m no coward,” he says, in a show of courage that makes him — and de Jesus — a winner.
This element of cruelty, stemming from self-loathing, is what gives the play its guts. Nor is that self-disgust limited to the hyper-critical Michael. When Harold finally makes his fashionably-late grand entrance, it doesn’t take him long to identify himself as “a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” with strong suicidal leanings.
In one way or another, all of the boys in this band of brothers are miserable, but Michael takes the cupcake. Throughout the play, Parsons bravely follows him into that nowhere land of quiet desperation, poised between antic amusement and black despair — even as Michael’s best friend, Donald (Matt Bomer, sturdy as a friend should be), sees through his emotional masquerade.
“You think it’s just nifty how I’ve always flitted from Beverly Hills to Rome to Acapulco to Amsterdam, picking up a lot of one-night stands and a lot of custom-made duds along the trail,” he says to Donald in a poignant, soul-baring moment. “But I’m here to tell you that the only place in all those miles — the only place I’ve ever been happy — was on the goddamn plane.”
So long as he stays away from liquor, Michael’s self-deception holds up. But when a straight college friend (and secret crush) named Alan (Brian Hutchison, a real heartbreaker) unexpectedly shows up at the party, our congenial host loses it big-time. Hitting his high at this critical point, Parsons delivers a stinging and incredibly sad aria of self-loathing about “the guilt, the unfathomable guilt!” that cuts deep and draws blood.
Happily, a lot about the play now seems dated — but not everything, and not in all circles of society, which makes this anniversary presentation doubly welcome. It not only reminds us of where we’ve been, it also serves as a warning about whatever forms of social oppression are still here and yet to come.