Reassembling the cast and director of the Tony Award-winning 2018 revival, “The Boys in the Band” becomes a Netflix movie that can’t entirely shake its slightly claustrophobic stage roots, but which provides a stellar showcase for its actors, especially Jim Parsons as the central provocateur.
Written by Mart Crowley (who died earlier this year), the original 1968 production and 1970 movie captured the then-shocking voices of a group of gay men in New York, written in the era before the Stonewall Riots and the greater activism and visibility that followed. It’s a story that conveys the freedom of these men to cut loose amongst each other, while exposing festering grudges and one very toxic case of self-loathing.
The maestro behind it all is Michael, played by Parsons, in a role that’s reminiscent of his scene-stealing turn as an amoral agent in the recent limited series “Hollywood,” also made for Netflix under producer Ryan Murphy’s deal — showcasing, if there were any doubts, “The Big Bang Theory” star’s versatility and lacerating edges.
Michael is throwing a birthday party for the chronically tardy Harold (Zachary Quinto), bringing together seven members of their extended group. But a wild card emerges in the form of Alan (Brian Hutchison), an old college pal of Michael’s who happens to be in town, sounds distressed and wants to drop by, which Michael fears would mean outing himself.
The drinks flow, and so do the secrets, including the strained relationship between the promiscuous Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), the former’s interactions with Michael’s friend Donald (Matt Bomer), and resentments involving Emory (Robin de Jesus) and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who face racism as well as homophobia.
Director Joe Mantello employs a few devices to open up the story a bit, including visual flashbacks during a cruel game that Michael introduces during the final act.
There’s only so much, however, that can be done on that score, and fortunately, the cast — anchored by Parsons and Quinto, whose exchanges drip with venom — admirably holds the screen. In addition, with Broadway theaters shuttered, the sensation of having a stage-like experience proves welcome in a way Netflix and the producers couldn’t have imagined when this screen revival was conceived.
Fifty years later the play’s text does feel less daring — the fact the actors are all out was hailed when the play made its debut as a sign of how far things have come — and after all the verbal fireworks, the payoff doesn’t quite equal the build-up.
Still, it’s helpful to contemplate how this sort of raw dialogue sounded in ’68 to absorb this movie not just as a showcase for the performers, but a reflection on all that’s happened — and what still hasn’t — since Crowley and company first struck up the “Band.”
“The Boys in the Band” premieres Sept. 30 on Netflix.