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'The Boys in the Band': Drama on gay life still resonates

Jim Parsons, left, Robin De Jesus, Michael Benjamin

Jim Parsons, left, Robin De Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells recreate their Broadway roles in Netflix's film version of "The Boys in the Band." Credit: NETFLIX/Scott Everett White

THE MOVIE "The Boys in the Band"

WHEN | WHERE It begins streaming Wednesday on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The seminal 1968 play "The Boys in the Band," renowned for the honest and deeply felt portrayal of its gay characters by the late playwright Mart Crowley, gets its second cinematic adaptation as director Joe Mantello reunites the cast of the 2018 Broadway revival he directed for this movie streaming on Netflix.

The ensemble is fronted by Jim Parsons as Michael, hosting a birthday party in his Manhattan apartment for friend Harold (Zachary Quinto). Other attendees include Donald (Matt Bomer), Emory (Robin de Jesús) and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), as well as couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins).

Events shift in an unpredictable and wrenching direction when the party is crashed by Alan (Brian Hutchinson), Michael's married college friend, who has earlier that evening tearfully called to say he has to "see him about something right away."

The production arrives with the imprimatur of Ryan Murphy, who also produced the Broadway revival; it's co-written by Crowley and frequent Murphy collaborator Ned Martel.

MY SAY This adaptation of "The Boys in the Band" aces the most significant challenge facing any stage-to-screen adaptation. It doesn't just replicate the material; it translates it to a different medium.

With the exception of an opening and closing montage, the action takes place almost exclusively on the patio and in the living room of Michael's apartment.

What can seem vibrant on stage runs the risk of playing as flat and boring as a movie. But Mantello, having previously directed cinematic versions of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "The Normal Heart," understands the art of adaptation.

He stresses close-ups at the most important and affecting moments, allowing the actors to bring a degree of depth to the characters that would not have been possible on stage.

He shapes the single set with enough visual context to emphasize the loneliness that runs through each of these people, even as they gather together. Carefully wrought flashbacks to seminal, long-ago experiences add a touch of impressionistic poetry to what is otherwise a dialogue-heavy story.

The thoughtful direction enhances the timelessness of Crowley's writing, emphasizing that these characters are tangible and affecting individuals as well as symbols of the awful condition of being obliged to suppress your true self because of societal expectations.

"The Boys in the Band" is more than a half-century old, and of course a lot has changed over the decades. But it retains its impact and power thanks to a cast that expertly communicates the injustice of that condition and just how wrenching it is to be unable to love freely and openly.

The ensemble seamlessly makes the transition to the screen. Parsons can be a grating presence in general, but that quality makes sense in Michael, who serves as the primary antagonist here, goading his friends into difficult confrontations with past sorrow.

Other standouts include Michael Benjamin Washington, who is the focus of the most heartbreaking moment in the movie, when he attempts a call to a long-lost, unrequited love. Quinto, Bomer and the rest are predictably first-rate, each actor capturing something unique and essential about men who want nothing more than to live their lives on their terms.

BOTTOM LINE The latest big screen version of "The Boys in the Band" is more than just a time capsule; it's a vibrant, well-acted production of material that still resonates decades after it first hit the stage.

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