Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 31, 2018
The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic and costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins.
The answer is a bit of both. There are certainly some wince-worthy moments that cannot be avoided altogether, the kinds of things Edward Albee is referring to in the excellent 2011 documentary film, "Making the Boys," about Crowley and the play. The portrayals and jokes, Albee says, drew straight audiences to the original 1968 Off Broadway production, where they were "happy to see people they didn't have to respect." It is an understandable stance by Albee, a gay man himself, and by others who felt it was terribly important for such a public presentation to show gay characters who would command respect and draw attention to the goal of equality. The neurotic and bitchy Michael (played in the current production by Jim Parsons), the campy Emory (by Robin de Jesus), and the promiscuous Larry (by Andrew Rannells) were not their idea of the poster children they would want to see standing up on behalf of their cause.
But time, history, and a slew of plays and musicals featuring gay, lesbian, and, transgender characters, allow us to better appreciate the place of The Boys in the Band in the grand scheme of things. What is likely to make us cringe now are the misogynistic and racist comments that are casually tossed about, like the insult Michael hurls at Harold (Zachary Quinto, absolutely marvelous in the role), whose birthday party is the premise that accounts for the gathering of seven gay friends and two outsiders at Michael's apartment. It is a half-sung bit of doggerel that sounds like it might be a familiar punch line to an unpleasant and oft-repeated joke, a line that begins "no matter how you figger" that manages to be racist and anti-Semitic at the same time. Only the response by Michael's on again-off again boyfriend Donald (Matt Bomer) manages to defuse the moment with a low-key bit of sarcasm: "My God, Michael. You're a charming host."
As the play opens, Michael is alone in the apartment (the lovely and inviting two-level set design is by David Zinn) in which everything is spic-and-span and camera-ready, as if for a magazine shoot. All that awaits is the arrival of the party guests, who, in addition to those previously mentioned, include the possibly bisexual Hank (Tuc Watkins), Larry's lover and the father of two children, who is separated from his wife; and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the only black character among the group. Also coming, not as a guest but as a "gift," will be Cowboy (Charlie Carver), whose personal services Emory has purchased as his present to Harold.
Later, after Michael believes he has talked Alan into meeting him the next day instead, guess who comes through the door just as the "boys" are camping it up in a wildly hilarious dance to Martha and the Vandellas' recording of "Heat Wave." Even though Alan is too preoccupied with whatever is eating at him to even notice, a flummoxed Michael awkwardly tries to explain away everything and everyone. Alan accepts a drink and starts up a conversation with the straight-seeming Hank, whom Alan refers to later as "a very attractive fellow," thoroughly confusing Michael as to his old friend's sexual orientation.
As the evening progresses, things take on a meaner tone. Alan gets quickly drunk and lashes out at Emory, calling him a "goddamn mincing swish" and throwing punches until Emory's nose begins to bleed. Meanwhile, Michael gets increasingly inebriated and initiates a "game" in which he insists that everyone use his telephone to call someone they secretly love and tell them so. It is all meant to be like one of the cruel games portrayed in Edward Albee's earlier Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the ones he called "Get the Guests" and "Humiliate the Host." Yet here is one place where you see director Joe Mantello's gentle prodding in order to tilt things at a slightly different angle. All of the participants, except for Alan, do so voluntarily, regardless of the emotional risk. For some, the phone calls, bravely made, pay off with surprisingly positive results. But even those who find themselves caught in a dead end emerge all the stronger. For all his meanness, Michael has done everyone a service.
In another time and place, not everyone attending the party would be friends. But in this particular time and place, this is one of their very few sanctuaries against a world that has taught them they are supposed to hate themselves. Of course they have to band together. Even after he gives Michael a serious tongue-lashing, Harold's parting words to his host are "thanks for the laughs; call you tomorrow." One can only hope that they will still be standing together when things truly explode in a year's time, in a way that neither they nor the playwright could foresee, with 1969's Stonewall Riots. From then to now, through extraordinarily sad and difficult times and more recent victorious ones, the struggle for gay rights holds an exceptionally important place in the theater world as well as in country's ongoing saga. Thus it is wrong to dismiss this play, and why this outstanding production, performed and directed by openly and proudly gay men, marks a triumphant return for The Boys in the Band.