WHAT "The Boys in the Band"
WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
INFO From $69; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE This 50th anniversary Broadway revival is humorous and gut-wrenching.
"If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so much."
That painful declaration, spoken by Michael (Jim Parsons) near the end of the 50th anniversary revival of Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the Band" at the Booth Theatre, comes close to saying it all. The rest is bitter, biting exposition.
Much has been written about the groundbreaking nature of Crowley's play, the first commercially successful work to shine a light on the lives of gay men and one he fought to get produced with some powerful help from the likes of Natalie Wood (he was her assistant on the 1961 movie "Splendor in the Grass") and perhaps Edward Albee (it's rumored he was a silent investor). It opened in a tiny Off-Broadway house in 1968, drawing interest from, among others, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then moved to a bigger venue to run for more than 1,000 performances. A film in 1970 and a couple of Off-Broadway revivals followed, but only now have the boys landed on Broadway, in an emotional, gut-wrenching production — trimmed down to one act at the request of director Joe Mantello — that has audiences laughing silly one minute, wallowing in the despondency of it all the next.
As the lights come up on David Zinn's mirrored, deep-red set (a major upgrade from earlier productions), Michael is in full hostess mode, fussing with his wardrobe and where to put the appetizer platters. Over the next 110 minutes, the guests assemble until we have nine (maybe 8-1/2) gay men who represent a variety of struggles facing gays in an era when their sexual activity was considered a crime. These mean boys make the "Mean Girls" onstage a few blocks uptown in the Tina Fey hit seem like pussycats. The vitriol flies, escalating with the help of booze and drugs, from humorous, off-color zingers to brutal cruelty.
The star-studded cast is in fine form. Parsons, showing no signs of the foot injury he suffered during previews or "The Big Bang Theory" character we know so well, is an anxious mess, giving a well-defined portrayal of a lapsed Catholic struggling with a sexual orientation vilified by his religion. There's really no weak link here, but to mention some standouts: Matt Bomer as Michael's weekend lover Donald, in therapy to deal with mommy/daddy issues; Zachary Quinto as the birthday boy, Harold, a "pockmarked Jew" in despair over his fading looks; Andrew Rannells, whose Larry struggles with an inability to commit; Robin de Jesus as the blatantly flamboyant Emory; and Brian Hutchison as Alan, the ostensibly straight college roommate whose suspected gay explorations cause the play's most serious fireworks.
The impact of "Boys," written pre-AIDS crisis and only a year before the Stonewall uprising, goes well beyond period piece, It has often been noted that the current cast consists entirely of proudly openly gay men, most with notable careers in television, film and stage. And the world, of course, has changed in its acceptance of any number of LGBT issues. But some of that acceptance is tenuous — consider a couple of cases coming to the Supreme Court this fall. If "The Boys in the Band" does anything, it points out the reality that change can be fleeting, that nothing in the politics of sexual identity is certain.