A Cast of Gay All-Stars Makes This “Boys in the Band” Funny and Moving

Luann de Lesseps greets her fans, but won’t get high with them.

Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band—first produced the year before the legendary Stonewall rebellion changed the LGBT community forever—centers on a group of witty, sparkling Manhattan gays who happen to carry around a lot of deep-rooted sorrow in their designer satchels. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The lead character, Michael, drinks, goes to church, attends therapy, and “tortures” his hair to look less bald, while his friend Harold—for whom he’s throwing a 32nd birthday party—mutilates his face to look pockmarked and medicates himself with marijuana so he’ll be better able to show his “ugly” self to the world. When things go extra sour at the misbegotten party, the two vie for nasty-queen honors (Harold says he’s the only one who can beat Michael at his own game), though it’s a surprise visitor—Michael’s old “straight” buddy, Alan—who really stirs the shit by expressing his distaste for gays being so public about their sexuality, which is interesting because Alan may be harboring a secret or two of his own. At the soiree, there had been a Judy Garland impression, a Maria Montez reference, a conga line to “Heat Wave,” and some cracked crab and impromptu lasagna, but when Alan erupts into hate crime-level violence, things become way less festive. The dark mood seems to then take over the high strung Michael, who reverts to his bitter, demanding persona as he instructs each guest to call the person they love in a very painful Albee-esque party game.

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Matt Bomer, Brian Hutchison, Zachary Quinto, Mart Crowley, Joe Mantello, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Andrew Rannells and Jim Parsons at the The Boys In The Band 50th Anniversary Celebration on May 30, 2018 in New York City

The consensus on the resulting play is that unhappy Michael is trying to inflict his hurt on others, though I’ve always also felt that he’s a truth seeker who may be trying to set his friends free via cathartic confrontation, while also demanding that Alan stop hiding in his relationship with his wife. Add to the mix Hank, a man who’s already broken up with his wife to be with Larry, who wants the freedom to sleep around rather than going the traditional relationship route; plus the campily flaming Emory, who really sets Alan’s gaydar alarms buzzing, along with the dumb but sweet Cowboy that Emory has procured for Harold, and you’ve got a hell of a one-hour-and-47-minute intermissionless showdown, I mean party.

Crowley’s script—tightened a bit for the Joe Mantello-directed 50th anniversary production that just opened—crackles with pathos and bitchy hilarity (“Your lips are turning blue. You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman” is just one of dozens of priceless lines), with bursts of caring and camaraderie to offset the pervasive loathing of self and others. For many years, the community was embarrassed by this play, but it reflected its time, when turning 32 was the equivalent of death; when two men who are introduced at a party instantly recognize each other from the bathhouse; when lacerating wit helped fill the gaps in one’s self respect, and skin. By now, we can recognize it as not just a symptom of its era, but a pioneering dramedy, as well as a work laced with a sense of community and some positive messages along with the despair. I love the play, appear in the 2011 documentary about it called Making The Boys, and was thrilled when Crowley recently told me, “You know this play better than anyone.”

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Fortunately, Mantello’s production doesn’t disappoint, bringing together a star-studded cast featuring a lot of high profile gays to get to the heart of Boys’ humor and poignancy. Jim Parsons is a terrific Michael, who goes from wanting his guests to play down their gayness in front of Alan to being the biggest screaming queen who ever lived, while moaning, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” Parsons makes the shifts skillfully—Mantello gives him a solo moment of transition with a fascinating directorial flourish—and the actor doesn’t show any sign of his recent accident; he climbs the stairs of the duplex set (which looked more disco era than ’60s to me), dances with the others, and is either healed or very brave. As his soulmate, Matt Bomer (above) shows his body in a towel and then undies, but more importantly, he gets to reveal his wry wit and compassion as perhaps the most sympathetic character. Robin de Jesus makes a fine Emory (a/k/a Connie Casserole) and is especially moving when he agrees to call the love of his life, a dentist who’s long moved on to cleaning other people’s teeth. Tuc Watkins and Andrew Rannells are excellent as the bickering couple, Rannells persuasively arguing for both his independence and the chance to stay in the relationship, and as Cowboy, Charlie Carver (below) manages to get mileage out of every single line. (“I try to show a little affection—it keeps me from feeling like such a whore.”) And Michael Benjamin Washington is great as the butt of racist stereotype jokes—the guys fling all kinds of un p.c. jibes at each other—playing along, though he says only lets Emory (and himself) “Uncle Tom” him. That takes on a new meaning here, since de Jesus is Hispanic, which creates a different bond between the two, one which evolves when Emory promises to put a lid on the bad banter—another moment when tenderness overrides bitchery.
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I only had reservations about Zachary Quinto as the bemused, withering Harold. I felt Quinto did strong line readings while not necessarily embodying the character in full. (The must-see 1970 film version retains the original stage cast, including the peerless Leonard Frey as Harold—one of the most memorable characterizations of all time. The wonderfully weird David Greenspan made the role his own in a strong 1996 revival. A later revival, performed in an apartment setup, was less successful.) To the production’s credit, they—and Quinto—manage to make the good looking actor not seem so gorgeous, via sheer suggestion. He bubbles up with a funny line every now and then, sort of like the Dormouse in the Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Tea Party. But while it may have been a conscious choice to make Harold seem more benign than usual in order to establish Michael as the prime villain, I thought more could have been done with the character. Still, Quinto scores laughs and has good moments as a pot-hazed creature who cackles more than he snarls.
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There’s a sexy, more hopeful ending here—though the specter of the AIDS to come hangs in the air as certainly as that lasagna isn’t really lasagna—and then the cast reconvenes to take an ensemble bow. My lips are blue from cheering.

And to answer two nagging questions you often hear about the play: “Why would these people be friends with Michael?” Answer: The reality is, as Michael himself says, these are basically Harold’s friends at the party. Of course, why they’d be friends with Harold is another question, lol! Also: “Why don’t the guests just leave instead of playing the horrible party game?” Answer: Deep down, they want to make the phone call, in desperate hopes that the object of their love actually holds a torch for them. Got it? Learn it.

Countess Your Blessings

But on to the girls: I was a guest star for Luann de Lesseps’ show at Feinstein’s/54 Below last week and faced a sold-out crowd of people, some of whom had paid a $155 premium ticket price plus food charge, and all of whom helped the informal event (directed by Ben Rimalower) turn into a real party. Luann (a long running star from Real Housewives of New York) came out in a succession of dizzying outfits to sing, chat with the audience, and introduce guests like myself and Jackie Hoffman. (Murray Hill was scheduled too, but he’d written down the wrong time.) In light of her drunken arrest in December, Luann joked that she had dropped “I Fought The Law (and the law won)” from the show’s lineup, and accompanist/musical director Billy Stritch said she’d also refused to do “Rehab.” Luann opened with her version of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and when she got to the part that goes “I’ll get high with a little help from my friends,” she smiled and added, “Not tonight!” Backstage, I learned from a completely sober source that Shade: Queens of NYC is waiting for the word from Fusion as to whether there’ll be a second season. (The channel had told the cast yes, but now says they’ll make a definite decision within two weeks.) Let’s hope so—there’s always room for drag queens.

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And trans divas like Amanda Lepore, with whom I appear in a new “Absolut Truth” campaign for a vodka I don’t drink (I only imbibe soda) but recommend because they’ve been supportive of LGBT happenings and there are plenty of people who do drink. Amanda was with her latest boyfriend, whom she told me is a nerd fresh out of college and works on Wall Street, a refreshing change from all the bartenders and gogo boys she refuses to date anymore. “They’re trash,” I offered, playing along. “And they all want to be famous,” she interjected.

I ran into another special lady last week when I had a great talk with Loretta Swit (below) at a Jue Lan dinner for the actress, who’s most famous for playing “Hot Lips” in TV’s M*A*S*H. I asked Swit about The Execution, a TV movie my movie club is obsessed with, in which Swit and other friends recognize a guy on a TV commercial as their former Nazi tormentor in the holocaust, Swit being assigned the task of seducing him (to make sure it’s really him), then killing him. “It’s the #1 movie in Israel,” Swit told me, not surprisingly. We also talked about her charity, which aims to rescue dogs who’ve been sent to war zones and then abandoned, and to make sure the dogs reunite with their soldier partners back in the states. (“We owe them a round trip,” she said, showing me on her phone a fabulous painting she did of one such dog named Charlie.) Naturally, I asked Swit if she’s ever been affected by the horrors that women are speaking up about in the MeToo era: “I think we’ve all had issues,” she said. “I’ve not had the Harvey Weinstein thing and all that. It’s too long a story and very subtle, a demonstration of power in a way. Like a director saying ‘That was a good shot’ and doing this.” She slapped my butt. “That’s not how you talk to me.” And finally, how would she talk to me about her thoughts on Roseanne? That was an easy one. “Does she have a death wish?” Swit squawked.

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Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.