In 1968, the same year that The Boys in the Band debuted Off Broadway, Phllip Morris launched Virginia Slims, its new female-focused tobacco brand, with the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Conflating gay liberation with a campaign designed to make women smoke skinny pastel cigarettes might be a reach, but it’s almost impossible not to think of that phrase while watching the current revival — now staged in a prime spot at on Broadway and stacked with some of the most successful out actors working in the industry today.
Half a century on, Mart Crowley’s landmark portrayal of eight men gathered to celebrate a birthday in New York City feels like both a lovingly preserved time capsule and a sometimes stark distillation of what has and hasn’t changed since its debut. His script is still funny and cutting and heartbreaking, too; it’s also a fraught, glittering showcase for actors, which undoubtedly helped lure a top-line cast that includes Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, and Andrew Rannells.
Parsons’ Michael is the evening’s host, an erstwhile writer with tastes to match his Steel Magnolias drawl and Georgetown pedigree. His sweaters are strictly cashmere, and his duplex apartment, designed by Tony winner David Zinn (The Humans) is a bachelor’s paradise, a mod pleasure dome of plexiglass and maroon velour. (How he pays for it, or doesn’t, is another question.)
Michael’s guests include his sometime boyfriend, the chiseled, kind-hearted Donald (Bomer); gentle Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) the only black man of the group; and the tartly flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesús), bearer of both lasagna casseroles and the evening’s most interactive gift, a singing-cowboy Candygram in skintight Levis and a ten-gallon hat (Charlie Carver).
There’s also Larry (Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), a couple caught up in their own internal drama: Larry wants to be free, while Hank, who’s left his wife and kids to be true to himself, just wants monogamy. And finally, the tardy, glamorous guest of honor, Harold (Quinto) — an acid-tongued neurotic (he’s late because he doesn’t like his own face) who serves as a sort of Bette to Michael’s Joan, lobbing verbal slings like circus knives.
Further complications arrive with the unannounced appearance of Michael’s college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison), who supposedly has no idea of the kind of sin his old friend has been living in. That curveball, and a brutally honest parlor game invented by Michael — call the one person you love the most, and tell them — steers the plot toward a collision course that feels no less impactful for being so clearly telegraphed by the second, fateful round of cocktails.
From the beginning, Boys has been criticized for catering to some of the deepest and most damaging stereotypes of gay life: the nelly, the show queen, the self-loathing closet case. Certain facets do feel dated in their own ways, but to scrub them entirely would also feel like a denial of the truths and the time the play is rooted in. And for all Crowler’s pop-culture asides and pointed wit, it’s hardly a hollow platform for banter and bitcheries; director Joe Mantello (Wicked, the inaugural production of Angels in America) takes care to let his characters’ messy, resonant humanity shine through.
It seems worth noting that five of the show’s nine original cast members died of AIDS-related causes, along with director Robert Moore and numerous members of the crew. That kind of black cloud may have largely passed in 2018, but in a political climate where certain hard-won liberties don’t seem nearly as solid as they did just a year or two ago, there’s also an extra layer of pathos embedded in seeing it all brought back now. As far as we may have come, baby, there’s still a long way to go. A-