“Inspired” is the word for casting Jim Parsons as Michael, the vitriolic host of a totally misbegotten birthday party. Equally fortuitous is getting Joe Mantello to direct the first Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band,” which opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre, half a century after its Off Broadway world premiere in 1968.
Parsons brings so much benign goodwill to the role of the self-loathing homosexual Michael that you might think the character’s nastier retorts to his assembled gay guests have been toned down or cut completely from the original script.
On the contrary, you have to wait only half an hour for Mantello to literally put the spotlight on Michael’s hidden evil streak in a coup de theatre that is as theatrically astounding as it is revealing of the character’s core problems. And kudos, too, to Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design.
Until this ferocious moment arrives, Parsons is a fairly genial host, albeit one too obsessed about his repertoire of sweater changes, his overly opulent apartment, his cracked crab hors d’oeuvres and, of course, his truly tragic hair loss.
“The Boys in the Band” is one of those rare modern plays that takes place in real time. As with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” we are invited to witness the assembled characters as they confront their various demons, and the intermissions serve to embellish and elongate that sense of an event.
Mantello eschews the traditional intermission for “Boys.” At first, this decision appeared to be a mistake. Two hours is not quite enough time to introduce all the characters, watch them spill their respective sins, and then recover enough to arrive at some resolution.
The payoff with Mantello’s approach, however, is well worth it. Shortly after the birthday-boy Harold (Zachary Quinto) makes his very belated entrance — where the intermission usually takes place — Michael reaches for his first of many drinks after having been on the wagon for months.
Roseanne Barr recently tweeted that she made her racist comment after having consumed Ambien, to which the makers of the sleeping aid responded that their drug had its side effects but one of them was not racism. Could it be that vodka and gin doesn’t make you nasty and racist, but they do strip away the civilizing forces that prevent us from spouting such offensive crap in public? Just ask Mel Gibson.
“The Boys in the Band,” after its groundbreaking initial success in 1968, quickly spawned an undeserved reputation as the anti-gay gay-themed play. (Vito Russo’s tome “The Celluloid Closet” led the negative drum beat.)
Crowley countered that there were healthy homosexuals in the world; they just hadn’t been invited to his “Boys” party. Actually, from the behavior on display at the Booth Theatre, some of Crowley’s queers appear very healthy and well-adjusted, considering the homophobic circumstances of 1968.
Under Mantello’s insightful direction, Michael’s biggest problem looks to be his adverse reaction to alcohol, as well as his compunction to attend Mass on Sunday and several other days of the week. If he could just lay off the twin addictions of booze and communion, there’s definitely hope for this Michael.
While Parsons is a revelation, so too is Michael Benjamin Washington, who brings real pathos to the party’s sole black guest, Bernard. His monologue phoning a childhood fantasy uncovers several layers of bigotry that have been endured, hidden away, but not forgotten. Likewise, Matt Bomer keeps finding unexpected levels of anxiety in playing what is arguably the play’s blandest character, the quintessential best friend Donald.
Elsewhere, the starry ensemble offer heartfelt homages to the original performances, captured in the 1970 film. Perhaps there’s no other effective way to play the wisecracking “Jew pockmark fairy” Harold (Quinto) or the hyper-effeminate Emory (Robin de Jesus) or the hetero-acting Hank (Tuc Watkins) or the promiscuous Larry (Andrew Rannells) or the hustler Cowboy (Charlie Carver) or the unexpected guest Alan (Brian Hutchison), who may or may not be gay but is both freaked out and attracted to what he sees at his college friend’s party.
The difference in these performances is that 50 years later, the actors in this production are all proudly out and many of them are rightfully stars. Especially effective is Mantello’s handling of everybody’s entrance, designed to surprise and induce applause, which is very much deserved on all counts.
This “Boys” revival wisely keeps the play’s setting in 1968, even though David Zinn’s scenic and costume design doesn’t play up the iconic flamboyance of that period. In a wicked nod to that distant past, Michael’s overly red and mirrored apartment recalls the décor of the upscale hustler’s bar Rounds, long shuttered, on East 53rd Street and 2nd Avenue.
In 1968, the characters of “Boys” were what my college-age crowd reviled with the taunt “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Crowley and now a whole cast of men who weren’t even alive when “Boys” first appeared have captured that generational divide so indicative of the era. When Alan first arrives at the party, the seismic shift in the gay men as they quickly put on their collective straight face is worth the price of admission, and should be seen by anyone who doesn’t know the devastating effects of the closet. That this moment in the play is also outrageously funny is why Crowley’s play continues to enlighten and entertain.
The theater season that just ended brought us the other most famous gay-themed plays, and after tripping through the cult of gay victimhood in “Angels in America” and “Torch Song (Trilogy),” “The Boys in the Band” is a bracing call to take responsibility for who you are. Whenever one of the characters in “Boys” descends into bathos, there’s always the sardonic sage Harold (“Well, I for one need an insulin injection”) to slap him back to reality.