Imagine the worst dinner party you’ve ever been to in your life, multiply it by ten, and you still won’t match the emotional carnage that Ryan Murphy lays at your feet with The Boys in the Band.
One of the most prolific creators in entertainment, Murphy’s projects stemming from his megabucks deal with Netflix have been hit-or-miss. Hollywood is the most successful, garnering several Emmy nominations, while The Politician and Ratched were met with “mehs” and pitchforks, respectively. What The Boys in the Band has in its favor is an adaptable source text. Murphy excels when he pulling from existing material, most notably American Crime Story and The Normal Heart. The Boys in the Band, a groundbreaking 1968 Off-Broadway play about a group of gay men living in New York that was recently revived on Broadway to celebrate its 50th anniversary, seems, on paper, like the perfect project for the producer to bring to Netflix, and to the fall awards season.
At the center of this adaptation is Michael, played by Jim Parsons, a self-proclaimed globe-trotter who drapes himself in designer clothes that he can’t afford. Michael is throwing a birthday party for his old friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) and invites their mutuals for a night of drinking and dancing on the balcony: Donald (Matt Bomer), Hank (Tuc Watkins), Hank’s shamelessly unhappy lover Larry (Andrew Rannells), Emory (Robin de Jesús), and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). Interrupting their planned reverie is Alan (Brian Hutchinson), Michael’s presumed-straight college roommate who stops by unannounced. The culture clash of a 1960’s lawyer from Washington with a group of openly, proudly gay male New Yorkers is deafening, and the party quickly devolves into a chaotic maelstrom of emotional cruelty thinly veiled as a parlor game.
Co-written by original playwright Mart Crowley and directed by Joe Mantello, The Boys in the Band hews closely to its Broadway beginnings. The film is mostly staged in Michael’s apartment, with occasional flashbacks and cut-aways to establish the characters and their relationships with one another. Rather than being distractions, they are welcome respites from the suffocating tension that Mantello, Crowley and co-writer Ned Martel create through strong direction and a tight-as-a-drum script. The sense of impending doom settles in early, as Michael tries and fails to get his friends to tip-toe around Alan’s bigoted tendencies, and as futile as it is clearly is, Mantello and his writers do a great job ratcheting up the tension.
Once Michael decides to raise the stakes with his game, that tension explodes and the film comes alive. Mantello melts away the cheery, campy pretense for a fraught examination of self-loathing, insidious homophobia, and unexamined desires. At his best, Mantello cuts in and out of close shots of increasingly wrecked faces with gutting clarity, ensuring that not a single second of their mutually-assured destruction is lost. The dialogue, already stunning in its intimate bitterness, sinks deep to the bone, as Mantello’s handling of the tight space keeps us fully in-tune with the characters’ responses to every barbed word.
Language is uniquely important to The Boys in the Band, as every sentence is layered with subtext and shade that belie pages of history we only have glimpses into. To Crowley and Martel’s credit, they understand the power of words, especially slurs. Those words, especially the “n” and “f” words that fill the air frequently, will certainly be uncomfortable, but the context and character work that is done keeps them from going unchallenged, misunderstood, or, God forbid, justified.
Crowley and Martel’s words are brought to stirring life through Band’s strong ensemble cast, led by Emmy winner and Ryan Murphy favorite Jim Parsons. He is excellent at constructing Michael’s smirking artifice, chipping away at it to reveal his destructive tendencies, shattering it with the weight of his emotional turmoil, and then building it back with the fragments in a truly unsettling way. The rest of the cast is strong, with most getting their moment to shine. Tuc Watkins does the absolute most with his, delivering a particularly heartrending performance in the middle third that should put him squarely in the Best Supporting Actor Oscar conversation.
The Boys in the Band does so much well, but the transition from stage to screen does leave some things to be desired. While every character has their place in Michael’s apartment, it does at times feel overstuffed and that richer character development is sacrificed at maintaining the original cast. Zachary Quinto’s Harold and Charlie Carver’s Cowboy feel the most purposeless, there to just deliver catty and dumb lines, respectively. The set would’ve been significantly less snarky without them, but I think the film would’ve survived. They could’ve made room for some of the plot threads that were left dangling, like Michael’s clearly unrequited feelings for Alan, and Alan’s sexuality, which is left deliberately vague.
Whatever questions are left, The Boys in the Band doesn’t feel lesser of a work without them answered. It is a successful adaptation that, even with its period setting, feels as vital and impactful now as it must’ve felt in 1968. For Murphy, it’s the kind of win that proves he has an impeccable knack for identifying and realizing a compelling story of any moment. I doubt Netflix was ever worried in their investment, but seeing The Boys in the Band fully realized must offer a significant sigh of relief.