It’s a good year, apparently, to be 1968; or at least to revisit it on Netflix. Over the next month, the streaming service will release not one but two sprawling, starry evocations of the era: Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, due Oct. 16, and The Boys in the Band, out Wednesday. The first is already being lauded for its relevance and urgency; a timely wink at all the ways the tail-eating circus of politics and culture remains unchanged. The second feels like a more complicated prospect, and perhaps a less easily winnable one.

Fifty-two years after Boys first bowed Off Broadway, Mart Crowley’s stark vision of what it is to be a gay man in America will undoubtedly appear almost impossibly alien to some: the shame and self-loathing of a love that still not entirely dares speak its name; the camp Bette Davis feints and painful racial interplay. “It's about a very specific group of men at a very specific time,” Matt Bomer, who plays the kindhearted, enviably abdominaled Donald, told EW earlier this summer. “There's a fever pitch… [and an] ugliness that comes with that.”

Credit: Scott Everett White/NETFLIX ©2020

As one of many alumni from the Tony-winning 2018 revival on Broadway — nearly every major player, from director Joe Mantello (Wicked, Angels in America) on down, returns, as does producer Ryan Murphy — he would know. Mantello's staging, too, is largely replicated for the screen, with early exterior scenes of '60s Manhattan in action soon telescoping down to the duplex apartment of Jim Parsons' Michael, the fussy, hard-drinking Southerner-on-the-Hudson whose party-hosting duties make his home the story’s default setting.

And what a home it is: a swish bachelor pad large enough to hold the overlapping melodramas of more than half a dozen guests, including Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins as Larry and Hank, a couple still coming to terms with their disparate visions of monogamy; Michael Benjamin Washington as the elegant, melancholy Bernard, the group’s lone Black man; Robin de Jesús as the proudly flamboyant Emory; Charlie Carver as the sweetly dopey party favor he brings along, and Brian Hutchinson as Michael’s resolutely square college friend Alan, whose request to drop by for a cocktail couldn’t come at a less apropros time.

Enter, too, the tardy guest of honor — Zachary Quinto’s arch, velvet-suited birthday boy Harold, who seems to have a PhD in casual bitcheries — and the night’s main entertainment, introduced by an increasingly un-sober Michael: a nasty parlor game that involves calling up past crushes and paramours to confess undying (and often unwelcome) love.

Even in an entirely heterosexual setting, that might be a dangerous prospect; in Boys, it’s incendiary. Mantello takes the camera’s advantages as they come, zooming in to capture the kind of intimacies and small gestures only film allows. Still, there’s a performative staginess the production can’t shake, and a claustrophobia to the cruelty on display that even its status as a sort of time-capsuled cautionary tale doesn't quite mitigate.

Boys no doubt has its benefits as both a history lesson and an outsize acting showcase for its talented cast; as a film experience in 2020, though, it often comes as a kind of relief to know that the seismic half-century-plus since its creation — as a play and a 1970 film, then a play and a movie again — have given us so many other sweeter, deeper stories to tell. B

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