History Lesson

‘The Boys in the Band’ Is Perfectly Lost in LGBT Time

‘The Boys in the Band’ is back on Broadway, and the pre-Stonewall 1968 play still has some harsh truths to tell about gay self-hatred and self-expression. It’s also very funny.

Joan Marcus

The poor cracked crab: unloved but at least unscathed at the end of The Boys in the Band. The dish, prepared by host Michael for his friend Harold’s birthday, goes untouched and unfeasted upon during Mart Crowley’s 1968 play; the characters, all guests and ready to party and bitch deep from their cocktail coupes, have far juicier morsels to devour.

Here, I will prepare for the contents of that uneaten dish of crab to land squarely on my head, judging from younger friends and colleagues who have, to a fault, really not enjoyed the Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band. Other friends (in their 40s and older) have loved it.

This is a generalization, and mine is an admittedly small, unscientific sample, but it perhaps illustrates a stark division in gay cultural experience and expectation. Or maybe, at the end of a very long gay day—and, as a teenager way back in the Crustaceous Period of the 1980s, I heard of The Boys in the Band long before I saw the film—it comes down to the individual, and the strange symphony of emotions that watching The Boys in the Band can elicit.

You may laugh, you may grizzle at how antic it seems, you may laugh a bit more, and then wonder why everyone on stage is so camp and not-camp, watchful, and also silly, glowering and also overwrought. For they are all, at different moments, all of these things.

In Joe Mantello’s brilliant and sometimes puzzling staging at the Booth Theatre, featuring many well-known gay faces (Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, and Andrew Rannells among them), the vibe couldn’t be more different from the infamous 1970 movie, directed by William Friedkin.

That felt very much like a downtown New York apartment of its era: unremarkable, but inside a haven, with a balcony of twinkling lights where the men danced to “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas, before their carousing is interrupted by the stunned, agony-streaked face of Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s old college roommate, who’s probably in the closet and his own powder-keg of unresolved everything.

From then on: a cavalcade of revelation, chaos, laughter, pain, and Alan, head in his hands, not daring to look at it all unfold.

The nature of the play’s wincing pain and the nature of its catty pleasure has caused eras of questioning itself for gay audiences. One current of thought is that the lacerating self-hatred expressed by some of the characters, the lack of confidence, and debilitating fears around their sexuality is itself antic. The line of thinking goes: We’ve moved on. Who are these whining victims?

But bringing contemporary politics and identity changes to bear on a play from 1968, while inevitable, is unfair. Here’s a suggestion for this revival: why not treat The Boys in the Band in the context in which it was written, at the time it was written? Judge it as a snapshot of its time, and then enjoy or critique it as such. The play is more than a gallery of stereotypes.

The confusing thing, if you take this task on, is just what time Mantello means this to be. The plush cushions and smoked glass of David Zinn’s set seem to suggest Deep Halston, 1977. His clothing ensembles are an era-jumbling mish-mash, but white jeans and retro sweaters seem to suggest the late 1990s, or, ummm, right now.

Wherever “the boys” are this time around, it doesn’t feel or look like 1968. This must be deliberate: Has Mantello unhooked them from their pre-Stonewall perch to give them a more contemporary feel, not to bring them up to date but to leave them suspended meaningfully in time? Whatever, it makes the very 1968 images of gay men feel critically not of their time.

Michael is a snappy, initially perfect host, and Parsons plays him with first the jaded warmth of a man who knows his throng too well. But note, as my friend did, that he spends beyond his means, living a small-scale fantasy life of glamour that the everyday impinges upon. The things and booze are there to ward off demons. And it’s Michael’s demons that eventually take a ferocious hold of the evening.

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Into the apartment next comes Donald (Bomer), who—and you have to love the happy sighs and polite whistles of the audience at this point—strips off for a shower. Donald is a good sparring partner, and then an object of desire and observer. He says not much for a considerable amount of time.

In Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Larry (Rannells), Crowley, many years before any writers were even contemplating the topic, interrogates gay coupledom. This was at a time when there were few models of such relationships, nothing to emulate, no path to follow but your own. And this is no sappy romantic analysis: Rannells and Watkins beautifully capture two very different individuals, one older and quiet, the other younger and horny and questioning, who want to be together but maybe not in the sense that convention dictates.

Emory (the riotously mugging Robin de Jesús) is an old-school screaming queen, but he’s an old-school screaming queen who’s also a real person who isn’t about to meekly accept Alan’s threatening homophobic behavior; and he’s also felt the pain of lost love.

If the racism-baiting elements of his relationship with the play’s only black character, Bernard (the excellent Michael Benjamin Washington; Emory calls him the Queen of Spades and much else), Crowley writes a scene that unpacks that racism and its intersection with the men’s intimacy and cultural status.

The show’s adept scene-stealer is Cowboy (Charlie Carver), the pretty young man who is Harold’s birthday gift. Carver perfectly captures his vapid vacancy, and his sharp talent for simple truths at the worst moment. (Parsons looms over him in near-apoplexy when Cowboy is at his cutest and dumbest, just as Dorothy does to Rose in The Golden Girls at the end of one of her interminable St. Olaf stories.)

And then there is Harold himself.

In the film, shot in close-up and played by Leonard Frey, he is kind of terrifying; a deployer of constant withering archness, a monotoned gay cyborg.

How one waits for his first line: “What I am Michael is a 32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?”

For this spectator, Quinto matches the tone but somehow misses the man. You feel too keenly the distance between actor and character. But there is still the piercing moment when, at evening’s end, human and party wreckage strewn all about, he turns to Michael and tells him he’ll call him tomorrow. That’s what gay friends are for.

Whether you feel wounded or whether you groan at The Boys in the Band, you know if not the kind of men on stage, then at least elements of them. You have housed at least a few of those elements yourself. (Please don’t lie: you have, Mary. And if you don’t know what “Mary” means, I really do give up.)

The play is a mirror, a distorting one, but one that absolutely reflects something back of substance to a gay audience; a lot of it isn’t pretty but it is true. And, as the mantra of the time goes: The personal is political.

It has always intrigued me that the play was first staged in the year before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, whereas the film was released the year after, in 1970. As historians have noted, the effects of the riots were not immediate: It took time and political will for their effects to be felt and imbibed by LGBT people. But there, acting as Stonewall’s own before and after pivot, its most immediate sponge, is The Boys in the Band.

AIDS isn’t a cloud on the horizon, marriage equality isn’t even a dream, these guys know they have to be careful even gathering in an apartment to dance and have fun in case the police bust them for offending public morals.

So, it is a different time, but it isn’t unfamiliar. It is significant that Michael is a recovering alcoholic. He knows how drinking damages him. Here he soon gives up on the water, and so the booze leads him to the edge of the abyss that seems to upset so many. It is he who weeps and wails at the end, “If we... if we could just... learn, not to hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just not hate ourselves just quite so very, very much.”

This, said in 1968, before the Stonewall Riots, before modern LGBT liberation has played out in theaters and movies and plays, and on television (a process that is far from complete), is a perfectly understandable thing to say. It is not weak, it is not suspect, it is not strange, for a gay man to say this in 1968; particularly a recovering alcoholic who has just fallen devastatingly off the wagon.

And I will go one, crab-dish-missile-tempting step further: It is not strange for a gay man to say it today. The reason that certain parts of The Boys in the Band hit the mark, positive and negative today, is that some things, some feelings, are timeless; some parts of gay life and gay friendships echo down the years; and one of the taboos the play investigates, years before its time, is the notion and nature of gay self-hatred.

It doesn’t examine this in isolation. In the extended conclusion of the play, the men play a dark game of telephone, involving picking the device up and calling someone they love, and telling them so. The can of worms this opens is ugly, absurd, and also cathartic. But it is also meaningful: We see, in front of us, brave declarations, drunken as they are. Fears. Dreams dashed. Lines drawn in the sand. Steps taken. Truths told.

The problem that The Boys in the Band has always had is one of cultural isolation. It existed alone for far too long. Nothing like it preceded it, nothing like it came after it, for a long time.

Its cultural impact in this vacuum simply grew. It came to be a totem. If culture was fair, if society was more open, The Boys in the Band would be one of a number of plays about LGBT people—not just gay men—chewing over each other’s strengths, failures, and swapping intimacies, urgent and silly.

In a less anti-gay world, The Boys in the Band would be part of a pantheon. It wouldn’t be sitting alone for decades being judged, lionized, and despised.

In a fair and more equitable world, and a more open cultural universe, there would be more LGBT people having parties, joshing, regretting, and thinking, on stage and screen. But for a long time, The Boys in the Band was it. At a key moment in gay history, although no one knew it, The Boys in the Band was it. Mantello and the cast have done a wonderful, respectful, and intelligent job bringing it back.

Some of its truths are specific to its time, some are uncomfortably universal. But treat the play in its historical reality. Treat its characters as individuals. If you need to bring your oh-so-knowing, identity politics-sensitive brain to bear on the play, do at least start The Boys in the Band by accepting the play for what it is: a play about a group of gay men in 1968, when Stonewall was just the name of a bar in the Village, and when people were stumbling toward senses of themselves, sometimes not saying the right things, but saying some pretty big things publicly for the first time.

Boys is a historical marker, a fascinating night in with a group of imperfect buddies, a dark night of the soul, and—in Mantello’s supple charge—an exhilarating, investigatory night of many souls.

And yes, gay people still have a lot to learn from it, not least about how we see ourselves and how we treat each other. The harsh truth is that Michael’s sozzled cri-de-coeur hasn’t dated at all.

The Boys in the Band is at the Booth Theatre. Book tickets here to Aug 11.