The last reaction I expected the new screen adaptation of “The Boys in the Band” to provoke was indifference. But Tony winner or not, 50th anniversary film remake be damned, there isn’t a whole lot that this stagebound opening of a time capsule brings to 2020.
The great stage director Joe Mantello treats it as the period piece it is, and there’s a refreshing blast of “Look how far we’ve come” as a culture and subculture about it.
Jim Parsons does a passable job of toning down his sing-songy sitcom line readings in the “Big Bang” past.
And Zachory Quinto is acrid and brilliant, and entirely too dashing to be a convincing “32 year old ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.”
But this production never quite escapes the label of “relic of an utterly binary and bygone era.” A pre-Stonewall/pre-AIDS play and movie(s), its weary gay stereotypes feel positively quaint half a century on.
A 1969ish Greenwich village birthday party brings everyone in their circle to motor-mouthed Michael’s (Parsons) apartment.
First to arrive is Donald (Matt Bomer), Michael’s sometime paramour, and “a model fairy,” whatever that means. He doesn’t live in the city, so he’s the one who has a ’68 MGB convertible.
Emory (Robin de Jesus, funny) is flamboyantly swishy and dishy and ulfiltered. He’s arranged a somewhat dimwitted “escort” dressed (badly) as “Midnight Cowboy” (Charlie Carver, amusing) gift for the guest of honor.
Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) and the bickering couple Larry (Andrew Rannells), who is always on the make, and his wounded older lover Hank (Tuc Watkins) and the rest have gathered to fete Harold (Quinto), fated to make a late arrival to his own party.
The inciting incident of the evening is a panicked, weepy call from Michael’s college roomie. Michael makes every effort to brush Alan (Brian Hutchinson) off, meet him for lunch, etc. Michael hadn’t come out in college. Alan “doesn’t know.” And the last thing Michael wants to do is subject the man to “screaming queens singing ‘Happy Birthday.'”
He thinks he’s succeeded, and then “straight” Alan shows up anyway, mid-party. His arrival is the film’s most chilling scene, Whatever this wife-and-children businessman was crying about on the phone, his entrance takes everybody, on screen and off, back to the closeted era, with embarrassed eye contact, awkward small talk and pained secret “shame.”
Well, everybody save for Emory.
“He’s about as straight as the Yellow Brick Road.”
I’ve seen “Boys” on the stage and the original William Friedkin film version (more stage-bound than this), and what sticks with you is the bitterness that the last third of the story serves up. The regret over lives lived as lies, love affairs that must kept secret, “happiness” denied still stings.
Harold and Michael’s melodramatic war of wills, bullying each other, the other guests, the “dumb” Cowboy and hapless Alan with demands that they all take unblinking looks in the mirror? That feels very “the kindness of strangers” arch and archaic.
“Beware the hostile fag,” Harold viperously purrs. “When he’s sober, he’s dangerous. When he drinks, he’s lethal.””
Except nobody comes off as drunk. Too many of the characters never stop feeling like “camp” characters, even Parsons and Quinto.
And all the Judy Garland, Maria Montez, TWA and Fire Island references circle us back around to that early impression, the one these “Boys” never shake — “quaint” and “relic.”
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity and drug use
Cast: Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Robin de Jesus, Andrew Rannells, Michael Benjamin Washington, Charlie Carver, Tuc Watkins, Brian Hutchinson and Zachory Quinto
Directed by Joe Mantello, script by Mart Crowley and Ned Martel, based on Crowley’s play and the 1970 screenplay. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:01