This slick Netflix reprisal of a classic queer play has a superlative cast and a big emotional wallop
Mart Crowley’s 1968 stage play The Boys in the Band is a landmark work of queer theatre: its depiction of a fractious group of gay middle-aged New Yorkers falling apart over the course of a single evening was light years ahead of its time. Naturally, no mainstream actor of the day would touch it: the cast of the original off-Broadway production – who went on to star in William Friedkin’s very decent 1970 movie version – were unknowns, mostly gay but, ironically, all closeted.
In some respects, times really have changed: the obvious USP for Joe Mantello’s Ryan Murphy-produced screen version for Netflix is that its cast is comprised of big-ish names, all out and proud (reprising their roles from the director-producer combo’s splashy 2018 Broadway revival).
Mantello enjoys throwing off some of the shackles of the stage in the early scenes, layering on the period flick details, having fun with Crowley’s deft introduction of the nine-strong cast. In the nominal lead role, The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons really proves his dramatic chops as party host Michael. At first he comes across as an uptight perfectionist, carefully curating a group of gay friends to come over and celebrate the birthday of their eccentric pal Harold (Zachary Quinto).
But things slowly spiral out of control: Michael’s notionally straight former college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchinson) turns up, uninvited, gets drunk, and punches out Robin de Jesús’s aggressively flamboyant Emory. Underlying tensions start to divide the group – particularly with regards to whether they should be living monogamous, buttoned-down lifestyles, or something more distinct. Quinto’s magnificently malevolent Harold finally turns up, and starts pouring acid on the flames. Michael begins to drink, and loses his nice guy composure, his buried insecurities and resentments finally whipping the evening into a full-on emotional conflagration.
The play has lost some of its contemporaneity over the years – left behind by the queer theatre it paved the way for. The film can style some of this out by revelling in its status as a period piece. It has a familiar trajectory, and some of the characters and arguments are of their time, but its emotional architecture is timeless and devastating.