1968 was a momentous year for so many reasons. But one event that escapes most historical retrospectives was the premiere of what’s largely considered the first play about gay men in America. “The Boys In The Band,” written when homosexuality was criminal in some parts and long before AIDS, arrives on Broadway for the very first time in a powerful production.
The play is Mart Crowley’s unapologetically honest portrayal of a group of gay friends celebrating a birthday party in Manhattan. It’s pocked with pointedly self-mocking humor spanning an arc that starts like a sitcom and ends like a Greek tragedy.
Set in a single night, the characters exhibit stereotypical traits - the self-loathing, the promiscuity, the biting sarcasm. The plotting can seem forced as the central conflict involves the arrival of a bigoted straight character who may or may not be gay himself. But it’s so well directed and performed, any dramatic flaws are easily overlooked. Under Joe Mantello's gripping direction, the production, trimmed to two intermissionless hours, has shades of Albee's “Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.”
As the liquor flows, so does the vitriol from this bravura ensemble. Zachary Quinto as the droll Harold has some of the best lines, which he zings with great relish. As Larry and Hank, Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins poignantly evoke the difficulties gay men faced trying to maintain a committed relationship. Michael Benjamin Washington as a gay man who’s yet to achieve his own civil rights is excellent as well. Brian Hutchison does great work as the conflicted Alan. The always fabulous Robin de Jesus has a ball as the flamboyant Emory. Matt Bomer as the unfulfilled Donald speaks volumes with the fewest lines, and Jim Parsons’ Michael who bitterly quips: “You show me a happy homosexual, I’ll show you a gay corpse,” is shattering as the unhappiest of all of them.
“The Boys In The Band” may strike some contrived notes and of course it’s dated to an extent, but I see it as a fascinating time capsule that continues to resonate in most entertaining fashion.