review: a “boys in the band” for the rupaul’s drag race generation

Joe Mantello’s 50th anniversary production of “The Boys in Band,” which opened at the Booth Theatre on Thursday, could be described as a lengthy kiki, an extended reading challenge, a special 110-minute episode of UnTucked. If you are confused by those terms you are likely to be equally lost during the play, which is deeply based in gay culture.

Mart Crowley’s 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” changed the theater forever, allowing gay men to be characters onstage in a play completely about being gay. The play was incredibly radical and arguably gave birth to a gay theatrical canon, paving the way for “Angels in America” and “Torch Song,” not to mention the more recent “Dada Woof Papa Hot” and “Significant Other.”

Despite the importance of “The Boys in the Band” it is a somewhat unpopular play; after all this is technically its Broadway premiere, 50 years after the original Off-Broadway production. To put it mildly, “The Boys in the Band” is complicated, as its relationship with both the theater community and the gay community. People often view the play as dated, offensive, and inherently rooted in a self-hating gayness of the late 1960s.

However, Ryan Murphy and Joe Mantello saw something in this gay relic, and got together a team of nine openly gay actors to do a revival, playing during Pride month in New York City — the significance of this production cannot be understated.

Although “The Boys in the Band” predates the Stonewall riots, the AIDS crisis, same-sex marriage, and the very concept of “gay pride” and pride parades, Mantello and his star cast have breathed a new life into this production. Despite the fact that they did not update the script, they managed to find unexpected connections between 1968 and 2018.

The way the characters embrace their gayness, express femininity, and position themselves counter-culturally feels exactly the same as the current generation of gay men, who live in a world where RuPaul’s Drag Race has become popular culture. In the world of “Boys in the Band” and in our current moment of Drag Race fandom, femininity and gay culture is in. Somehow, the two worlds feel deeply connected: after all, how different is “Oh, Mary” from “Yaaas Qween”?

The play tells the story of a group of men together for a birthday party, and for the first two-thirds, they all hang out, drink, dance, jokingly insult each other, and complain about relationships. If the format and repartee feels familiar, it is because seems to be a predecessor to RuPaul’s Drag Race: UnTucked.

Just as fans have their favorite drag queens, audience members are likely to pick a favorite character here. Jim Parsons is at the helm as Michael, the party’s host who spirals out of control and becomes what we drag fans call “a messy queen.” However, without a doubt the stage-seasoned Parsons is the strongest actor and the largest character, and he keeps everyone else on his level throughout. A crowd favorite is likely to be Zachary Quinto as the birthday boy Harold, a marvelously Oscar Wilde-esque dramatic dandy who languidly scoffs as the drama unfolds around him. The true Miss Congeniality of the night, however, is Robin de Jesus as Emory, the fan-twirling scene stealer whose witty jokes, perfect references, and hilarious reads are impossible not to laugh at.

These three are clearly the strongest actors, but a shirtless Matt Bomber and a twinky Charlie Carver provide the audience with more than enough eye candy, a requirement in any gay play. Meanwhile Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins bring the relationship drama, as Larry (young and cute) and Hank (older and mid-divorce) have a fight about monogamy that is shockingly relevant. It is Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, the token black friend, and Brian Hutchinson as Alan, the straight/closeted unexpected guest, that reveal just how old the play is.

The first two thirds of “The Boys in the Band” is a hilarious comedy where a group of shady queens read each other and have a great night. But in the final third, comments turn from petty to pointed, to prejudiced, to painful. Everything turns when Michael starts drinking. This production goes out of its way to signal the importance of this moment: the whole cast freezes and the lights shift as Parsons decides to pour a drink (kudos to Hugh Vanstone’s sensual lighting design). The emphasis here is essential, because it is at this point that “The Boys in the Band” becomes another play, a never-ended UnTucked fight, a cringe-worthy tragedy so rooted in the 1960s it feels completely separate from the fun, resonant previous part of the play.

Soon Michael goes around the room insulting everyone, calling Bernard the n-word, telling Harold he an ugly Jew Quasimodo, and shouting at Emory that only someone from Braille school would sleep with him. He then forces everyone to play a telephone game where they have to call the man they really love. This leads to arguments, relived traumas, and Michael screaming at Alan to admit he is gay.

Throughout the racism, antisemitism, ableism, and internalized homophobia, the audience noticeably cringes and becomes uncomfortable. However, the characters onstage do not. Although to us this party is a shocking event that would certainty end friendships, for those onstage it seems like just another Saturday night. After all the screaming and tears, everyone calmly leaves, hugging on the way out; Harold tells Michael he’ll call him tomorrow to chat. Somehow this final third, demarcated clearly by a tonal shift, tries to be both serious and casual, offensive but unacknowledged.

Part of what makes this portion so jarring is that it that it is the only part of the play that feels dated. The sets and costumes by David Zinn are quite simply gorgeous, but other than the landline phone they do not scream 60s. Uninformed audience members may miss the small note of “April 1968” in the program and may not know that this is a period piece. Thus, when racial epithets fly and self-hating gayness comes out, the play becomes startling, feeling unresolved and leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Like RuPaul’s Drag Race and its fandom, “The Boys in the Band” is imperfect. Just as RuPaul makes transphobic comments, fans attack black queens online, and judges critique contestants for not having slim enough waists, this play too had moments that make the audience cringe and think aren’t we past this?

But just as Drag Race, despite its problems, is important for providing a platform to showcase queer artists, this this all-gay, Pride month, 50 anniversary production of “The Boys in the Band” is a deeply significant event for the gay community and the theater community. We certainly need to critique it, but we also can use it as an excuse to celebrate queerness and we can be proud that we live in an age where we can have art like this on Broadway.