‘To My Girls’ Off Broadway Review: JC Lee Updates ‘The Boys in the Band’ for Millennial Gay Men

A new comedy set in a Palm Springs Airbnb tackles white gay male privilege

to my girls
Photo: Joan Marcus

Maybe every generation needs its own “The Boys in the Band.” For a while there in the 1980s and ’90s, some playwright attempted to reinvent Mart Crowley’s formula every other theater season: A bunch of gay guys throw a party or rent a house in the country/Fire Island/the Hamptons. Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was the most noteworthy example of the genre.

Right before the pandemic, Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance” provided the most expansive take on “Boys,” creating a whole gay-male community that lived beyond one night or a weekend. Most startling about “The Inheritance” is how the flamboyant Emory character from “Boys” populated and took over that new all-gay world.

In 2010, on the 40th anniversary of the “Boys” film, director William Friedkin said the only thing he wished he could change was Cliff Gorman’s Emory, a performance he admired but now found a little over the top.

Way over the top defines the characters in JC Lee’s new comedy, “To My Girls,” which opened Tuesday at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. Everybody on stage here is a souped-up version of Emory. Each of them relentlessly cracks jokes, swishes, forms a chorus line, wears wild clothes (costumes by Sarafina Bush) and ends each zinger with a hurricane-force diphthong.

In “Girls,” as opposed to “Boys” and most of its imitators, the locale is now Palm Springs, New York City having been declared overpriced and pretentious. The four “girls” here have rented an Airbnb from a gray-haired queen named Bernie. Since Bryan Batt plays Bernie and the owner of the Palm Springs house, you would be wrong to think that this is a bit of Janet Leigh casting a la “Psycho.” After showing his rental to the “girl” named Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson), he disappears as Airbnb hosts are prone to do. Why Bernie reappears is never really explained except for that fact that he is Bryan Batt, and why else would he have taken the role?

Curtis and Bernie’s major personality trait, beyond imitating Emory, is that they are white. All the other “girls” (Carman Lacivita, Maulik Pancholy and Britton Smith) and a spectacularly built pick-up (Noah J. Ricketts, a big improvement over the hustler in “Boys”) are people of color. White gay male privilege is the theme that provides Lee his major twist on Crowley’s play, where one character is the token Black.

Curtis as played by Johnson can be read as a benign version of Michael, the bitter host of the birthday party in “Boys.” Michael is self-loathing because he can’t accept his homosexuality. Curtis is self-important because he’s white and good-looking, and lords that privilege over the others. He is not as awful as the four other “girls” make him out to be. Lee clearly disagrees, since he levels many anger-filled tirades against Curtis, who, frankly, is not guilty of being horny but of getting laid. A lot.

It’s here that Lee borrows a bit of hypocrisy from Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” wherein the Jewish character keeps complaining about the superficiality of his beautiful Gentile boyfriend. So who’s being superficial here: the gorgeous one or the “girls” who bask in that fabulousness from a distance?  

Stephen Brackett directs.