Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band has polarized audiences over the years for its depiction of self-loathing in the closeted gay community of the 1960s.
But its gripping and intoxicating 50th anniversary production — which lands, for the first time, on Broadway for a 15-week limited engagement run — makes a strong case for its place in gay history, serving both as an inspiring reminder of how far the LGBTQ community has come and also as a sobering warning of the dangers of internalized oppression.
To help put on this poignant play, producer Ryan Murphy and director Joe Mantello have assembled a stellar, starry cast of nine actors, all openly gay: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Tuc Watkins, Michael B. Washington and Brian Hutchison.
It’s a bold choice, one that’s especially hard to overlook as the characters they play — a group of gay friends who gather at a New York City apartment to celebrate a birthday — begin to expose the levels of shame they feel for being gay.
At the time The Boys in the Band premiered, of course, being open with your queerness lead to obliteration. This was pre-Stonewall; pre-pride parades; pre-A.I.D.S.; and pre-gay marriage. Heck, even the actors who played these parts in both the Off-Broadway run and William Friedkin’s 1970 film adaptation were stereotyped afterwards.
That certainly won’t be the case with this cast, but it’s hard not to sense that can all easily access the fear and pain that comes with hiding who you truly are. As an ensemble, all work remarkable well together and inhabit each role fully, as if it had been written specifically for them.
The play starts seemingly lighthearted, with Parsons’ Michael and Bomer’s Donald trading insults at one another with laughs and love (Crowley’s dialogue often plays here like the best RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s “Reading Challenge” that never was).
As more party guests arrive though, and the alcohol starts swinging, the cuts get deeper. Soon the audience begins to realize the “fun shade” being thrown around isn’t that fun at all. Things take a left turn when a friend from Michael’s past arrives who may or may not be gay. And by the time birthday boy Harold (Quinto) shows up, it’s very clear this happy birthday isn’t going to be very happy after all.
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Driving much of the action in the play is Parsons, who is the best he’s ever been. As Michael’s quick-witted, self-deprecating humor moves from pleasing to punching to pathetic, so too does Parsons peel back his own charm, leaving him raw and fragile by show’s end.
De Jesús is another standout in the play, as the rambunctious and sassy Emory. The actor’s comedic instincts bring a brightness to the piece, making Emory’s tender monologue later in the play even more effective.
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Mantello keeps the action moving swiftly on stage, with David Zinn’s sharp set design and Hugh Vansone’s sleek lighting giving the entire production a mood of sophistication and impending danger.
That feeling of trouble might feel foreign to a generation of gay people who have lived through some of the community’s darker days and now soak up the visibility of queer culture. But somehow, Crowley’s words — as told through this gorgeous production and talented cast of actors — feels more relevant than ever. Self-inflicted heartache, it appears, never goes out of style.
If there were ever a time to revisit The Boys in the Band, it’s now.
The Boys in the Band is now playing at Broadway’s Booth Theatre through August 12.