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Parsons, Quinto shine in ‘The Boys in the Band’

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Translating a story from the stage to the screen isn’t nearly as easy as you might think. Turning something inherently theatrical, something specifically designed for an in-person dynamic, demands a delicate and deft touch. Maintaining the direct energy of live theatre while avoiding the necessarily static nature of a stage story requires a lot of stars favorably aligning.

Those stars have largely aligned for Netflix’s “The Boys in the Band.”

The film – adapted from Matt Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play of the same name – tells the story of a group of gay men living their lives in New York City in the late 1960s. It is a quiet and compelling drama in its own right, though it was Crowley’s portrayal of gay life that marked its true breakthrough.

So many of the necessary pieces fell into place. The director of this version is Joe Mantello, who also served as the director of the 2018 Broadway revival of the play. The cast is also pulled from that production, with each of the cast members reprising their role for the movie. Netflix darling Ryan Murphy was a producer of the revival and key to bringing it to the streaming service. All of this leading to an adaptation that is as loyal to its unique source material as it can possibly be.

It’s 1968 in New York City. A gay man named Michael (Jim Parsons, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) is gathering his friends at his apartment for a birthday celebration. First to arrive is Donald (Matt Bomer, TV’s “Doom Patrol”), who has fled to the Hamptons to avoid the local scene and is struggling with his feelings about it – even seeing an analyst. From there, we meet the flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesus, “Milkwater”) and the bookish Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington, TV’s “Ratched”), the promiscuous Larry (Andrew Rannells, TV’s “Black Monday”) and the buttoned-down – and formerly married – Hank (Tuc Watkins, TV’s “Black Monday”). All gathered for a celebration.

The celebrated is their friend Harold (Zachary Quinto, TV’s “NOS4A2”), an acerbic wit who conceals his struggles with loneliness and the idea of his own mortality with biting remarks and quietly caustic put-downs. Along for the ride is Cowboy (Charlie Carver, TV’s “Ratched”), a young hustler who is being offered up as one of Harold’s gifts.

But when Michael’s college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison, TV’s “The Sinner”) – who doesn’t know that Michael is gay – turns up, the tone of the night takes a dark turn. As the booze flows, the secrets fly, with one particular party game leading to revelations that might have been best left unrevealed. Obvious truths and unspoken ones alike are laid bare, leaving each of these men to consider the world in which they live … and their place within it.

There’s not a lot of action in “The Boys in the Band” – not surprising considering its derivation, though the single-room nature of the play is expanded upon through early traveling shots and some periodic flashback scenes. Still, most of this takes place in a single apartment – a sense of stasis is unavoidable. But thanks to the material and those executing it, that stasis is more feature than bug, contributing to the tension generated by the self-stifling of these characters.

To my mind, the key to this film’s success – and it is successful – is the familiarity of all involved, both with the material and with one another. Anyone who has been in a play knows the sort of camaraderie that builds within a cast; imagine that connection amplified by spending not months but years together in the world being created. All the actors, the director – all utterly devoted to this project for a very long time.

That shared experience is a huge part of why “The Boys in the Band” works so well, even within the limits imposed upon it by the source material. Everything feels so wonderfully lived-in, the joy of theatrical connectivity without the staginess. There’s a verisimilitude that is impossible to ignore – these guys feel like they have been friends for years because they have literally been friends for years at this point. It’s a rare treat, to be sure.

Obviously, a piece like this is particularly reliant on the quality of the performances. Unsurprisingly, this group proves more than capable of clearing this high bar. Parsons is likely going to spend a long time trying to emerge from his sitcom shadow, but roles like this certainly won’t hurt his case. His Michael alternates between charming and wheedling, self-assured and self-loathing – even at his most toxic, he is a figure of no little sympathy. Quinto is all narrow-eyed dismissiveness, utilizing his formidable wit to imply his disdain for those around him. He churns up a love/hate energy that smolders constantly. The electricity between these two is the film’s primary power source.

But really, everybody gets their time to shine. The vulnerability, love and tension evoked by the complicated relationship between Larry and Hank only exist because of the complex portrayals put forth by Rannells and Watkins. Washington’s big moment – during the party game – is heartbreaking, while de Jesus is a riot when he camps it up (rendering his later emotional honesty all the more impactful). And the always-soulful Bomer floats through the film, almost ethereal in his vague remove from what’s happening around him. Carver is a bundle of gormless aw-shucks charm, while Hutchison handles his business in what is perhaps the most challenging role of them all.

“The Boys in the Band” was important in its time, and while it shows its age in spots, it’s important that this new adaptation stuck so closely to the original. It’s a meaningful artistic and cultural document, reflective of a time and place both drastically different from and shockingly similar to now. And thanks to the great work of Mantello and the cast, a new generation gets their own version of this thoughtful, heartbreaking tale.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 05 October 2020 12:05

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