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Non-Review Review: The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band is not only a cinematic adaptation of a classic play, it is a cinematic adaptation of a particular staging of a classic play.

The Boys in the Band is a film designed to capture a snapshot of the 2018 Broadway run of Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 off-Broadway play. It is directed by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best know for his theatre work including Wicked and the fiftieth anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band that forms the basis of this filmed version. The film reunites the entire ensemble of that staging, including actors like Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.

Banding together.

In some ways, Hamilton feels like the obvious point of comparison here. The goal is not just to bring a beloved play to the screen, but to capture the particular energy of a particular staging of that beloved play. However, while Hamilton leaned into its attempts to recreate the Broadway experience for an audience watching at home, The Boys in the Band is a much more traditional cinematic adaptation of a theatrical staging. It is a film, but it is a film that feels particularly “stagey.” It recalls a particular brand of awards fare, like Doubt or Fences.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with this adaptation of The Boys in the Band. With the exception of a few framing scenes set outside the apartment at the beginning and the end of the story, The Boys in the Band doesn’t feel like a reimagining so much as a restaging. Then again, it’s debatable to what extent this is a problem. Mantello’s approach to the material is straightforward rather than showy, putting his faith in the script – which was reworked by Crowley shortly before his death with writer Ned Martel – and in the cast, trusting them to carry the film.

Not-so-midnight-cowboy.

This largely works. The Boys in the Band is a fascinating snapshot of a cultural moment. Crowley’s play was famously one of the first pieces of mainstream pop art to focus on a large a diverse cast of gay characters, arriving before the AIDS crisis and before Stonewall. While the play has remained constant in all of those years, the world around it has changed. Its fortunes have ebbed and flowed, while the text seems to remain vital and relevant – it always seemed to say something to the moment, even if that something made critics uneasy.

The Boys in the Band is a welcome reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with a theatrical approach to cinematic stagings of beloved plays. The Boys in the Band may not pop off the screen in the way that Hamilton does, engaging as much with the audience’s experience of the show as with the content of the show itself. Instead, The Boys in the Band serves largely as a showcase for its actors and for its source material, proof that there is a lot to be said for locking a bunch of talented cast in a confined space with a good script.

Drinking it all in…

The Boys in the Band is a contentious piece of gay theatrical history. The play debuted the year before the Stonewall riots, and so provided a snapshot of a certain kind of queer culture that was arguably outdated before the stage play even finished its original run – a problem compounded by the fact that William Friedkin’s cinematic adaptation (also featuring a lot of the original cast) premiered the year after the Stonewall riots. One of the stranger and more intriguing aspects of The Boys in the Band was that it felt like a relic even while it was still being performed.

The Boys in the Band was an awkward fit for the post-Stonewall gay rights movement. After all, The Boys in the Band was largely built around a set of gay characters who seemed to have internalised society’s contempt and hatred for them, and who performed flagellation upon themselves and upon others as part of a cycle of abuse and shame. “Guilt turns to hostility,” Harold helpfully explains late in the play. Towards the end, Michael cries, “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”

It’s been a long journey to the adaptation…

As such, The Boys in the Band never fit comfortably with the “pride” movement that flowed from the Stonewall Riots. (The first New York City pride march was held a year after the Stonewall Riots.) Producer Ryan Murphy, who shepherded The Boys in the Band to Netflix as part of his lavish production deal with the company, has acknowledged as much. However, history has perhaps been kind to The Boys in the Band. The play offers a rare mainstream snapshot of gay life and gay culture before the upheaval of Stonewall and the horror of the AIDS crisis.

Indeed, this is perhaps part of the appeal of circling back to the play fifty years later. It is not that all of the battles have been won – in fact, gay rights are still under threat in contemporary United States. However, there is some sense of progress in terms of how gay culture is perceived and accepted. The original stage production of The Boys in the Band featured a number of gay actors, but they were all closeted. Even more tragically, five of the members of the original production team died of AIDS. So there’s something in a stage production with an exclusively “out” gay cast.

Lightening the mood.

Joe Mantello, Mart Crowley and Ned Martel make no effort to update the text itself or its setting. Indeed, the most modern aspect of The Boys in the Band is that it can be a little more explicit in allowing its characters to demonstrate affection to one another than earlier adaptations had been, although that reflects more about how audiences have evolved than the text itself. Instead, The Boys in the Band relishes its period setting in everything from its set design to its costuming to its soundtrack. The Boys in the Band is a window into a particular time and place.

Watched from the remove of history, The Boys in the Band is notable for how much effort it puts into presenting its characters in the same way as many of the contemporary stage dramas of the era. At its core, The Boys in the Band is one of those “dinner party goes disastrously wrong” plays that seem to define a particular strand of the American theatrical tradition. It feels very much of a piece with something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, right down to its claustrophobic passive-aggressive party games.

The straight man of the bunch. Maybe?

However, one of the more interesting aspects of – and tensions within – The Boys in the Band has always been the question of performance, particularly for the straight gaze. The bulk of The Boys in the Band is concerned with a birthday party being thrown for Harold, organised by his friend Michael. Over the course of the story’s first act, a variety of their friends arrive in the apartment and set about making themselves at home. However, things only really take a turn for the worse when Michael’s ambiguously straight friend Alan makes an unexpected appearance.

Central to The Boys in the Band is the tension between the safe space that these men have created for themselves and how the outside world retreats into that. Michael seems to believe that Alan thinks he is straight, although Alan later implies that he has always known and never made a big deal of it because Michael never embraced that side of himself in Alan’s presence. Repeatedly in The Boys in the Band, the characters find themselves subjected to the straight gaze – Michael’s neighbours glancing through an open door, Alan arriving into the apartment unannounced.

A familiar dance…

It often seems Michael falls apart in trying to reconcile that contradiction – at one point seeming to take Alan hostage and forcing his guests into a grotesque parlour game that treats Alan as the audience. (There is, perhaps, a wry paradox in the fact that The Boys in the Band was itself likely be performed for predominantly straight audience – and that this adaptation will bring the play to a larger such audience.) This tension and charge runs through The Boys in the Band, although this latest adaptation finds the cast and crew proactively asserting control of the production.

Crowley’s script for The Boys in the Band still shines more than half a century after it was originally written. The characterisation is still sharp, the wit is still dazzling. Indeed, there are moments when The Boys in the Band seems just as pointed as it must have been in its original staging, with Michael’s acerbic rejection of the idea of the tragic queer narrative with its doomed protagonist (“not all [gay men] bump themselves off at the end of the story!”) reading as much as a criticism of awards fare like Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don’t Cry as it does a pithy bon mot.

A time for reflection…

It helps that Crowley’s is brought to life by a tremendous and talented cast. Parsons and Quinto anchor the film as Michael and Harold, verbally sparring with one another across the film’s second half. However, the film benefits from a universally strong ensemble, with Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins deserving special credit as Larry and Hank, the couple whose tense push-and-pull dynamic provides the film’s most moving moments amid the dinner party carnage.

The Boys in the Band is an efficient and engaging staging of a landmark play, one brought to life by a fantastic cast working with a meaty script. The Boys in the Band is arguably anchored in a particular place and time, but there’s a lot to be said for the film’s comfort in that – in its understanding that the play doesn’t necessarily need to be updated or modernised to explain itself, rather that it is enough for it to exist as a snapshot of a moment that perhaps resonates differently in a world that has changed in the intervening decades.

It’s all a piece of cake…

The Boys in the Band might play a familiar tune, but it hits all the right notes.

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