Premise: At a birthday party in 1968 New York, a surprise guest and a drunken game leave seven gay friends reckoning with unspoken feelings and buried truths.
The LGBTQ community is at a crossroads in America in 2020. The Supreme Court may have legalized gay marriage years ago, along with a handful of other civil rights victories, but the current administration has been actively working to roll those protections back since day one, all in the name of “religious freedom”. Seen through this lens, it makes perfect sense why now is a good time for a new adaptation of The Boys in the Band, the Tony-winning Broadway show. This iteration, directed by Joe Mantello, even assembles the original cast from the 2018 stage revival, which was notable at the time for its all-out gay cast – a sign of how far society had come since the play’s inception.
Though I haven’t seen the stage version, Mantello’s Boys feels very much like a filmed-version of a play, and it’s a little disappointing to not get to see the outside world or any character’s backstory played out. Aside from an early montage, the finale, and a handful of flashback cutaways in the third act, the film takes place entirely within the setting of Michael’s (Jim Parsons) exquisitely decorated New York apartment. And yet, the claustrophobic nature of the setting really helps to underscore the inescapable discomfort that unfolds over the course of the evening. Michael is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto) that eventually devolves into a night of hard revelations and confrontations. Joining the party are Michael’s friend Donald (Matt Bomer), burgeoning couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), and Emory (Robin de Jesus).
The film ends up turning into a veritable actor’s showcase, giving nearly every cast member a moment in the spotlight. Though Boys is truly an ensemble piece, Parsons in particular, as the ersatz main character, shades Michael as a man who is struggling immensely with his own sense of self. Even at his lowest, most contemptible moments, Parsons finds ways to keep the audience on his side. While Sheldon Cooper was similarly prickly and agitating, Parsons is on another level as Michael. Sadly though, Michael is the one character whom we don’t get sufficient background information on, something that undoubtedly would have helped the audience’s understanding of him. In 1968, the role was equally lauded and criticized when the play initially debuted, painting the self-hating gay man in a negative light. A screen adaptation would be a perfect avenue to explore what exactly made Michael into the man we see in the film, but Mantello unfortunately shirks that opportunity in order to stay faithful to the original material.
Zachary Quinto’s Harold, who soaks up drama like a sponge, nails every zinger he’s given, and his back-and-forths with Parsons are bitingly sharp when they’re not equally humorous.
Michael’s party, and subsequent mood, gets soured with the unexpected entrance of Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s former college roommate, who is unaware of Michael’s new life, and is ignorant of homosexuality in general. Alan’s introduction provides the film with an additional bout of outsider drama, as the (supposedly) sole straight man is forced to confront a lifestyle he’s clearly uncomfortable with. It’s never explicitly stated what brings Alan to Michael’s home, nor why he continues to stay throughout the evening. Mantello makes plenty of implications, but never an outright statement.
The film’s dramatic centerpiece arrives a little over halfway through, as Michael’s cruel streak starts to take over: he devises a game where each of his friends must call the person in their life that they loved the most, forcing each man to bring up old ghosts that they wished would stay buried. It’s here where Michael Benjamin Washington and Robin de Jesus shine, as they’re given weighty, dramatic moments in the spotlight, even if the former’s character is a little under-written.Despite Boys in the Band’s dated time period, it’s telling that many of the issues facing the characters still feel prevalent today, and they mostly transcend LGBTQ-specific topics. Infidelity, faith, insecurity, and lost love are universal subjects, but set against the pre-Stonewall backdrop, the film’s timelessness becomes one of its greatest strengths.
I couldn’t help but wonder how similar the film would be if its setting was updated to 2020 (besides the rotary telephone usage, of course). Sure, the fear of each character being publicly outed may dissipate, but the ways each man is written surely wouldn’t change much. Mantello has smartly shut out the outside world in this film, along with any current events for the characters to comment on, and instead chooses to focus on their personal struggles. We, as a country, may have come a long way in our acceptance of gay culture, but, as The Boys in the Band shows, some things may never change.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.