The­ater The Boys in the Band

Variety - - Contents - BY MARILYN STASIO

The­ater: Booth; 774 seats; $199 top Di­rec­tor: Joe Man­tello Star­ring: Jim Par­sons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, An­drew Ran­nells

Fes­tiv­i­ties are in or­der for this su­perbly mounted 50th-an­niver­sary pro­duc­tion of “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crow­ley’s 1968 play about Man­hat­tan gay life — still largely un­der­ground in an era that pre­ceded Stonewall and AIDS. Not that ev­ery­one in the play seems up for a party. “If there’s one thing I’m not ready for, it’s five scream­ing queens singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” de­clares Michael in Jim Par­sons’ en­dear­ing per­for­mance as the heart and soul of this ram­bunc­tious birthday gath­er­ing.

Well, we beg to dis­agree. If there’s one thing this staid the­ater sea­son is ready for, it’s a mot­ley crew of gay friends get­ting to­gether to cel­e­brate. Harold, the in­sou­ciant hon­oree, takes his sweet time ar­riv­ing at the bash, but in this stag­ing — di­rected by Joe Man­tello and pro­duced by a team that in­cludes TV ti­tan Ryan Mur­phy — the char­ac­ter is played with such with­er­ing wit by Zachary Quinto that the wait is en­tirely worth it.

Re­s­plen­dent in era-ap­pro­pri­ate skinny pants and heeled boots (David Zinn did the vi­ciously ac­cu­rate cos­tum­ing), Quinto knows how to take over a room. Af­fect­ing a lan­guorous gait that suits Harold’s su­pe­rior cock- of-the-walk at­ti­tude, Quinto strolls over to one of the ban­quettes on the flam­ing-red liv­ing-room set (also by Zinn and equally cruel) and ar­ranges him­self as if on a throne. Quinto is drolly re­gal; as his sub­jects, we’re just grate­ful he doesn’t make us take a knee.

The rest of the guests, all played with in­tel­li­gence and com­mit­ment, are stan­dard types, among them one girly-boy (Robin de Je­sus), one sweet African-amer­i­can guy (Michael Ben­jamin Wash­ing­ton), two bick­er­ing lovers (Tuc Watkins and

An­drew Ran­nells) and an adorable “birthday present” (Char­lie Carver). They’re so well played, they could eas­ily pass for the usual mis­matched guests at any gay party in the pre-lib­er­ated era of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Crow­ley is a mas­ter of the bitchy one­liner, so the play is lit­tered with quotable bons mots, some of them sur­pris­ingly sweet to our older, more jaded ears. Michael, an ob­vi­ous stand-in for the play­wright, gets the lion’s share of the nasty laughs, but be­hind ev­ery joke is a hint of the bit­ter self-loathing that trig­gered it. It takes courage to ad­mit that you’re des­per­ately lonely. Mak­ing a joke of lone­li­ness, as Michael is wont to do — “Well, one thing you have to say for mas­tur­ba­tion, you cer­tainly don’t have to look your best” — takes the sting out of it.

One of the ad­mirable things about Michael is his bru­tal hon­esty. (“There’s noth­ing quite as good as feel­ing sorry for your­self, is there?”) Or is it cru­elty? There’s cer­tainly some­thing mean about his in­sis­tence on play­ing a ma­li­cious game that takes this friendly party in a dis­turb­ing di­rec­tion. Bran­dish­ing a white be­he­moth of a pe­riod tele­phone like a loaded gun, he forces each of his guests to call the one (prefer­ably straight) per­son he has loved — and tell him so.

Larry (Ran­nells, a charmer) and Hank (Watkins, a hunk) turn the ta­bles on Michael and trans­form his game into an in­ti­mate moment of truth. But poor Emory (de Je­sus) is forced to hu­mil­i­ate him­self by call­ing the school­boy crush he adored. “I may be nel­lie, but I’m no cow­ard,” he says in a show of courage that makes him — and de Je­sus — a win­ner.

The el­e­ment of cru­elty is what gives the play its guts. Nor is that self- dis­gust limited to the hy­per­crit­i­cal Michael. When Harold fi­nally makes his grand en­trance, it doesn’t take him long to iden­tify him­self as “a 32-year- old, ugly, pock­marked Jew fairy” with strong sui­ci­dal lean­ings.

In one way or an­other, all the boys in this band of brothers are mis­er­able, but Michael takes the cup­cake. Through­out the play, Par­sons bravely fol­lows him into that nowhere land of quiet des­per­a­tion, poised be­tween an­tic amuse­ment and black de­spair — even as Michael’s best friend, Don­ald (Matt Bomer), sees through his emo­tional mas­quer­ade.

“You think it’s just nifty how I’ve al­ways flit­ted from Bev­erly Hills to Rome to Aca­pulco to Am­s­ter­dam, pick­ing up a lot of one-night stands and a lot of cus­tom-made duds along the trail,” he says to Don­ald in a poignant, soul-bar­ing moment. “But I’m here to tell you that the only place in all those miles — the only place I’ve ever been happy — was on the god­damn plane.”

So long as he stays away from liquor, Michael’s self- de­cep­tion holds up. But when a straight col­lege friend (and se­cret crush) named Alan (Brian Hutchi­son, a real heart­breaker) shows up at the party, our con­ge­nial host loses it big time. Hit­ting his high at this crit­i­cal point, Par­sons de­liv­ers a sting­ing and in­cred­i­bly sad aria about “the guilt, the un­fath­omable guilt” that cuts deep and draws blood.

Hap­pily, a lot about the play now seems dated — but not ev­ery­thing, and not in all cir­cles of so­ci­ety, which makes this an­niver­sary pre­sen­ta­tion dou­bly wel­come. It not only re­minds us of where we’ve been; it also serves as a warn­ing about what­ever forms of so­cial op­pres­sion are still here and yet to come.

P.103 “The Boys in the Band” re­view

Il­lus­tra­tion by TRACY PIPER

Party Peo­ple Matt Bomer and Jim Par­sons star in “The Boys in the Band.”

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