Article Thumbnail

‘The Boys in the Band’ Is a Love Story About the Dysfunctional Families We Create With Our Friends

This Netflix adaptation of the landmark 1968 play about a group of gay New York men is acidic and bruising, but underneath it’s about how communities take care of one another when the outside world shuns them.

The pandemic has deprived us of lots of activities we used to take for granted — particularly, the simple act of socializing. How great would it be right now to just go to a party? Not a Zoom event or a virtual book club — an actual dinner party surrounded by friends. As awesome as it sounds to be around people, we shouldn’t let our COVID reality distract us from a bitter truth: Even in the best of times, the people we’re closest to come with their own baggage and complications. Friendships are difficult, evolving creatures — especially if we used to hook up with those friends. Envy, insecurity and self-loathing don’t go away simply because we’re around our buddies. If anything, they can be exacerbated. Nobody brings out the worst in us more than our most beloved friends.

When The Boys in the Band debuted off-Broadway in 1968, it was set in what was then the present. Before Stonewall — before AIDS and before marriage equality — Mart Crowley’s examination of a group of gay male friends in New York illustrated just how dangerous it was to be homosexual during that time. (In fact, it was risky for the actors as well: “[W]e would take anyone who would do it; we were beating the bushes. The actors who did do it were very brave,” Crowley, who died earlier this year, said in 2019. “It was very different back then. You could get arrested for doing the things they do in this play. It was quite awful and ridiculous and demeaning. Naturally, everybody’s agent told them not to do this play.”) The Boys in the Band has been revived a few times since then, including an acclaimed 2018 Broadway production, but the 1968 setting hasn’t been updated. Times have changed — the 2018 cast featured an entirely out cast — but in the world of Crowley’s story, everything remains as it was.

The new Boys in the Band film, which premieres September 30th on Netflix, is directed by Tony-winner Joe Mantello, who also helmed the 2018 Broadway version. That production’s cast is all here as well. For all of us who couldn’t make it to New York (or afford the tickets), this Boys in the Band will have to suffice, which it more than does. The sting and sadness of Crowley’s work translates well to your home viewing device, even if an inherent staginess can’t be entirely avoided. (Characters in plays tend to talk more in monologues than movie characters do.) But what resonates strongest is a recognition that, even among seemingly close friends, there’s a poisonous discord that’s woven into the fabric of those relationships. Just because they’re all part of the same persecuted community does nothing to help.

Taking place over the course of a day and night, The Boys in the Band stars Jim Parsons as Michael, who has held onto his Catholicism even if the Church vehemently disapproves of his lifestyle. (Or, rather, it would if Michael told anyone outside of his immediate circle that he was gay.) Trying to stem a drinking problem, Michael has been sober for months, a feat that will be challenged tonight because he’s hosting a birthday party for his acerbic pal Harold (Zachary Quinto) at his swanky New York apartment. On the guest list is Michael’s boyfriend Donald (Matt Bomer), the having-troubles couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), the snarky Emory (Robin de Jesús) and the sweet Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). There are tensions within this group, but for one night, maybe everything will be okay as they come together to celebrate Harold. 

From Who’s Afraid to Virginia Woolf? to Dinner With Friends, the theater has taught us that no seemingly commonplace get-together will go smoothly. More likely, angry recriminations and surreal emotional savagery will be on the itinerary. And the same is true in The Boys in the Band, in which Michael’s growing misanthropy, stoked by Harold’s utterly unflappable demeanor and fondness for needling his smug host, will lead to all-out war in the apartment. Everybody’s attended a polite dinner party where something awkward or nasty happened. Multiple that by a thousand and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store in The Boys in the Band.

Zachary Quinto as Harold

As a straight man, I don’t pretend to have the necessary vantage point in order to appreciate every nuance of Crowley’s deeply felt portrait of gay life. (I’m mindful of New York writer Mark Harris, who recently lamented the heteronormative response that greeted the original play back in the day, shaking his head at “how … casually gay people were discussed with anthropological detachment.”) Crowley, who’s co-credited on the Netflix film’s script alongside Ned Martel, never intended The Boys in the Band to represent the entirety of gay life, and it’s foolish for any heterosexual viewer to treat the work as some sort of State of the Union. But while watching the film, I was struck by how Mantello turns Michael’s apartment into a seeming oasis for his friends — a safe place where they can be themselves free from the scrutiny of outsiders — only for the characters to realize that their hangups and traumas don’t go away once they walk through the door. For straight audiences, The Boys in the Band is a timely reminder how much pain the gay community had to endure — and still does.

Two cataclysmic events disrupt the proceedings — one from the outside of Michael’s close circle, one from inside — and both speak to the challenges these characters face in a world that’s hostile to them. The first is the unexpected arrival of Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s straight Georgetown roommate who’s in town from Washington, D.C. and needs to talk to him. (When Alan called earlier in the day, he’d been crying — very out of character for him — but then told Michael he was fine and to forget the whole thing.) Once Alan shows up unannounced, Michael begs his friends not to be too outlandish. (Alan doesn’t know he’s gay, and Michael’s scared they’ll blow his cover.) But although Alan may be homophobic, he’s not dumb, deciding to stay in part because he’s drunk and partly because he’s fascinated/repulsed by being around a whole group of gay men. For him, the evening is definitely one for anthropological detachment… until his own sexuality is called into question later in the night.

The second major event emanates from Michael himself. Discombobulated from Alan’s discovery of his private life, he prods his guests into playing a daring game: Each of them must call someone they’ve always secretly loved and confess their feelings. (You can get up to 10 points depending on whether you reach them and actually say “I love you.”) Michael’s friends don’t want to participate, but Parsons expertly turns the character into a vindictive bully who’s forcing his friends to feel the same anxiety that, apparently, he carries around with him all the time. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that he falls off the wagon during the party.) It’s not simply playing the game that’s stressful — it’s hearing the often wrenching stories these men tell about their longtime crushes, who may never have known because the characters were closeted. And yet, Michael takes perverse pleasure in their discomfort. He wants them to hurt like he does.

Jim Parsons as Michael

In 1968, such an open depiction of gay life in popular culture must have been a revelation. (Two years later, William Friedkin, who went on to direct The French Connection and The Exorcist, adapted the play for the big screen.) In 2020, a drama about the ordinary lives of ordinary gay men may feel decidedly unshocking. (Even normie programming like HGTV now features same-sex couples looking for their dream home.) But The Boys in the Band still resonates because of Michael’s volcanic anger, pointed inward but directed outward at those foolish enough to be his friends. 

The play is often bracingly funny, pinpointing how loved ones and pals know how to press our buttons better than anyone, but what’s most wistful about The Boys in the Band is its recognition that we turn to those closest to us to work through our issues, sometimes doing damage to our confidants in the process. Michael is the meanest character, but he’s not alone in inflicting sorrow on those around him. Hank, who left his wife to be with Larry, doesn’t understand why he’s not enough for his promiscuous boyfriend. Bernard, the only Black member of this friend group, finally reaches a breaking point about the racial humor hurled his way. 

Then there’s Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a hunky, dimbulb prostitute who’s meant to be one of Harold’s birthday gifts — the viciousness of the putdowns everyone levels at him suggests that Michael’s friends are happily savoring, for once, the luxury of being the person heaping scorn on someone else. The Boys in the Band’s bilious back-and-forth dialogue is a manifestation of the bigotry and fear they’ve had to withstand on the streets of New York.

In Harris’ excellent piece, he traces the play’s history, connecting it to the present and suggesting how gay viewers have both rejected and embraced Crowley’s iconic work over the years, noting how “painful” it was “to realize how much of the praise Boys received [from straight critics in 1968] was for what was seen as its daring in depicting how awful gay lives really were.” 

That’s unfortunate: It would be like watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and deducing that all heterosexual marriages must be an abomination. Both plays are merely a reflection of an individual artist’s perspective on one aspect of a much wider canvas. 

Still, the frustrations and heartaches of being gay in America are poignantly displayed in this new Boys in the Band. These men make their home in a liberal city but still have to live in dread — the movie captures the joy but also the everyday dangers. It’s a cruel world, and in trying times, these characters need to turn to one another. Michael and his friends have a tough time always doing that, but what’s beautiful about The Boys in the Band is its understanding that, deep down, they share a bond no one on the outside can possibly understand. 

Imperfect as they often are, that’s what families are for.