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A CurtainUp Review
The Boys in the Band
By Miriam Colin

"If we can only learn not to hate ourselves so much, we'd be happier."
— Michael, the host of the party at which he finally acknowledges that his mean-spirited game playing has been a pointless and cruel way of dealing with the self-hatred that prompts him to quip "Show me a happy homosexual, and I'll show you a gay corpse."
The Boys in the Band
L-R: Michael Benjamin Washington and Robin DeJesus. . . Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver. . . Andrew Rannelle and Matt Bomer (Photo: Joan Marcus

The Boys in the Band
Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer (Joan Marcus)
Michael the host of the birthday party that's the foundation stone for The Boys in the Band, was playwright Matt Crowley's alter ego. It's been fifty years since he and his circle of friends gave voice to the self-hatred spawned by the social and legal restrictions that had homosexuals retreat behind the safety net of an invisible yet real wall of a gay ghetto.

As Elyse Sommer noted in her review of the Transport Group's 2010 revival), Crowley's initially ground-breaking drink and low-esteem fueled play was made superfluous by the gay world's historic tragedies (notably the AIDS epidemic) and triumphs (the gay rights movement and increasing number of more powerful plays and musicals about gay life).

Crowley's play nevertheless deserves its place as a not to be forgotten marker in the still evolving LBTG saga. It's not a great play like Angels in America, which is also currently on Broadway. However, it remains a funny/sad group character portrait that deserves its own 50th Birthday party to honor its trailblazing status. That status was earned by the playwright's daring to populate a play with characters who made no secret of their sexual identities and revealed the pain beneath its promoted genre as a comedy about a segment of society not known to most theatergoers. Very much a first!

That the move from gay ghetto into a more open to diversity society has made Crowley's bitchy repartee and confrontations dated is actually cause for celebrating The Boys in the Band's 50th Anniversary. For a play the best way to celebrate a major birthday is of course to mount a revival. And if that play's past successes have been off-Broadway, that revival naturally calls for this party to play out in a Broadway theater and feature well-known actors with plenty of ticket selling charisma, and a brand-name director who knows how to give an old play a fresh, still relevant staging.

The cast of The Boys in the Band now at the Booth Theater delivers the good in terms of bankable star power. That includes stage-movie-tv ticket selling magnets like Jim Parsons to play Michael, the host with the most problems, and Zachary Quinto as the aggressively angry birthday boy Harold. And I can't think of a more perfect director than Joe Mantello who played Louis in the original Angels in America and who's responsible for the terrific revival of Three Tall Women currently at the Golden Theater.

Using a big name cast is smart in terms of making this revival economically viable. What's more, all of these actors, as well as the director— and even several of the lead producers — are enjoying satisfying professional and personal lives as openly gay men. What a difference from 1968 when gay actors kept their sexual identities secret since playing a gay character put their careers at risk. What's more, playing a gay character was equally risky for heterosexual actors. Consequently, the casting is not only a financial imperative these days, but potently symbolizes how far these ghetto-ized characters have come since just appearing in Crowley's play required courage.

Having a Mantello directed Albee play also running is an apt reminder that Crowley borrowed Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff scenario as the template for his fledgling play. That template was to have the action play out on a single set, using a party where an abundance of liquor turns the interactions toxic. For Michael that means bullying his to play a mean-spirited game similar to the Virginia Woolff play's "Hump the Hostess."

So. . . is this star studded and symbolically relevant cast enough to justify bringing this admittedly dated slice of gay life to Broadway? Yes. . .and no.

What Mantello has done tips the scale towards Yes. While Jack Cummings III 2010 revival also conflated the two acts into one, Mantello has trimmed the text some more (probably the trims mostly pertaining to dated cultural references) without catering to political correctness.

The actors make the zingers still work — that is they prompt laughter and eventually empathy for the pain and angst revealed when things get darker.

Jim Parsons could probably just waltz through his part and still make the Big Bang Theory fans in the audience overjoyed to see him live on stage. But while he's spent most of his career as the pleasant but sarcastic Sheldon Cooper, he's several times demonstrated his ability to command a stage. And does so again here. His Michael is a deeply conflicted Catholic and recovering alcoholic who lives above his means in a chic 60s stye duplex apartment by David Zinn (also designer of the equally true to the period and characters costumes).

While Parsons is both the major character and star name, it's the ensemble that's this production's true heart and soul. Some his moments are with his sometime boyfriend Donald (a hunky and likeable Matt Bomer). Though, Bomer and some of the other s are not given equal stage time, all help to round out Crowley's portrait of a group transitioning from a campy party time beginning to a drunken party from hell climax.

Zachary Quinto as Harold the "pock marked" birthday boy he does his aggressive persona to the hilt. There's no escaping for Michael from Harold's scathing "You are a sad and pathetic man, Michael. You are a homosexual, and you don't want to be, but there's nothing you can do to change it."

Issues of fidelity that are likely to resonate with now legally married same sex couples in the audience are represented by Larry (a delightful Andrew Rannelle) and the African-American Bernard (Michael Benjamin Walker).

Emory (Robin De Jesus) is the most flamboyantly gay character, but as portrayed by the terrific De Jesus somehow also the most authentic. Jesús, ebullient and vibrant). He arrive with the most minor character, a handsome hustler named Cowboy (Charlie Carver) WHO IS Emory's birthday gift for Harold).

Ultimately there is a down side to the excellent implementation of all the smart moves to support the decision to let Crowley's Boys celebrate their 50th anniverary on Broadway. Good as these actors are, the best known ones especially, couldn't quite make me forget that they ARE celebrities and that this is all a well-funded, well-intended effort to give a no longer ground breaking play a new, Broadway worthy relevancy. The glossy set and glitzy costumes exacerbate this feeling.

Like Elyse, I saw the 2010 Transport Group revival. The compay didn't have a big budget but by presenting it in a Chelsea loft they too sought for something to help downplay the play's status as a too controversy bedevilled artifact. The loft setting was a bit gimmicky, but it was more authentic and genuinely moving than the splashy party now at the Booth.

With or without stars who are out and proud of it, The Boys in the Band is an all too timely reminder that GLBT community's hard-won rights demand continued activism in the face of current Blue State hostility to those rights.

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The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley
Director: Joe Mantello
Cast: Jim Parsons (Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matt Bomer (Donald), Andrew Rannelle (Harold), Charlie Carver (Cowboy), Robin De Jesus (Emory), Brian Hutchison (Alan), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bermard), Tuc Watkins (Hank)
Scenic Design: David Zinn
Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg
Production Stage Manager: James FitzSimmons
Stage Manager: Morgan Holbrook
Running time: 110 minutes, with no intermission
Booth Theatre 222 West 45th Street
From 4/30/18; opening 5/31/18; closing 8/11/18
Note: R ecommended for ages 12 and up
Reviewed by

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