At a time when regular theatre-going is out of the question, some have been getting their fix by watching tapings of old theatre performances. But seeing theatre on a screen doesn’t carry the same intangible pleasures of seeing actors interact in the same space as their audience. The film The Boys in the Band, adapted from the Mart Crowley play of the same name, has a script that’s word-for-word the same as the play-text. And oddly, this scratches the itch for seeing live theatre better than seeing recorded performances of plays. The film carries the same emotions of its original text, but for a dynamic medium that’s fit for a watch on your laptop, alone at home.
Aside from a few flashbacks and vignettes, the film’s narrative takes place almost entirely in one flat on the Upper East Side. It’s therefore unable to hide behind any grand set pieces, relying almost exclusively on the strengths of its direction and performances. The adaptation shares its director, Joe Mantello, and the entire cast of its recent Broadway revival. Michael (Jim Parsons), the owner of said flat, is an anxious gay man who is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto). A loose collective of friends are invited; Donald (Matt Bomer), Larry (Andrew Rannells), his boyfriend Hank (Tuc Watkins), Emory (Robin de Jesús), and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). Emory also invites ‘Cowboy’, (Charlie Carver) a sex worker who is hired as Harold’s birthday present. But an unexpected appearance by Alan (Brian Hutchinson), an old (straight) college roommate of Michael’s, threatens to throw a wrench into the drunken festivities.
The play, which was first performed in 1968 (the Broadway revival was in the culmination of its 50th anniversary), is a reminder of how perceptions of the American LGBTQ community have evolved over the past half-century. Homophobia shapes each of the characters to varying degrees of shame that are weaponised as the night draws on. Bigotry within the group is also notable, manifesting in the form of vile racism toward the solitary Black character, Bernard. As the film progresses, tensions grow between each of the characters, and barbs are thrown from all corners. It would almost cause one to question why characters so awful to each other would even be friends to begin with. But what the work ultimately reminds is that when society is poisonous, communities are essential to oppressed groups. The downside is that having others who empathise with your pain may also mean they are forced to face the brunt of your anger.
The kind of effect this has on each character is best exemplified through Parsons’ and Quinto’s performances. The relationship between Harold and Michael is one of the most fraught in the group. Their shame manifests in different ways—Harold is cool-headed and aloof, while Michael becomes aggressive and controlling. The two already carry some of these traits in their other film roles, but they’re weaponised here as cover for their characters’ terrible loneliness. Harold and Michael’s attempts to gain control through their rapport are some of the most compelling moments.
The film is ultimately mostly distinguished from a stage production through some aesthetic changes, with cuts instead of scene transitions. But what is preserved is the kind of heightened tension of the theatre that’s not accessible in quarantine, in the palpable silences and discomfort of seeing people in conflict in the same space. It’s a film about pain manifesting as insecurities about ageing, looks, consumerism, and the paths to finding love and fulfilment through others. Though Crowley wrote the play in a different time, the emotions that run through it still manage to stay resonant and accessible today.
The Boys in the Band is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.