Darkened, silent theatres have been one of the saddest sights of the past six months. As we turned to the internet to fill the entertainment gap, filmed performances of major productions appeared online, free of charge, reminding us of what we were missing. Not that Netflix saw this coming when it commissioned a film version of the ground breaking 1960s play, The Boys In The Band, but that’s essentially what they’ve given us.
Originally staged in 1968, over a year before the Stonewall Riots and when homosexuality was illegal, Mart Crowley’s play was turned into a film in 1970. It returned to the stage in 2018, this time for its first appearance on Broadway, hitting the headlines because all the members of the cast were gay. All the productions were directed by Joe Mantello and he’s also at the helm of this latest one. The action centres on a birthday party in a New York apartment, held by a group of friends for Harold (Zachary Quinto) who, inevitably, turns up late. The apartment belongs to Michael (Jim Parsons), responsible for organising the event but also the instigator of a drunken game that makes everybody, him included, confront secrets and truths about themselves.
That, however, is the focus of the second half of a film completely unable to shake off its theatrical origins. The opening shot, of one of the friends lighting a cigarette in the darkness, makes it apparent and the layout of the apartment, with its main room, an upper level reached by a spiral staircase and an outdoor balcony, shouts it loud and clear. And any scenes taking place away from those confines feel like they’ve been bolted on in an attempt to add interest. The dialogue sounds like it’s been lifted straight from the theatrical version, with pacing to match: fine on the stage, but a couple of beats too slow for the camera and making it feel drawn out. And it means the snappy, bitchy dialogue loses some of its punch.
More successful is its evocation of the period – its music, its style and also its attitudes, the latter represented by an unexpected – and unwanted – guest at the party, Michael’s former college buddy, Alan (Brian Hutchison). It’s apparent from the first time we meet him that, like everybody else, he has his own secrets, although we’re left to make up our own minds as to their nature. Not so with the others, especially Michael who early on makes a big deal of having given up drinking: by the time the second act has arrived, it’s transparently clear why. He’s a malevolent, manipulative drunk and his particular drinking game is designed to cause maximum harm, even destruction. Parsons is excellent in the role, contemptible one moment, literally pathetic the next, proving that his Big Bang Theory days are behind him and he’s an actor to be taken seriously.
While his is the outstanding performance, the ensemble cast all deliver strong performances, but they’re let down by the production’s over-reliance on its stage heritage. Even the cinematography, with its close ups and aerial shots, obeys the conventions of filming a live play and it stands stubbornly in the way of the audience becoming truly invested in the action. In its day, The Boys In The Band courted controversy by putting the gay community firmly in the spotlight, at a time when the word “gay” had another entirely another meaning. Times may have changed but, in terms of its film making, this latest version struggles to break out of the 60s.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Netflix | 30 September 2020 | Dir. Joe Mantello | Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington.