Sticks and stones will break your bones. Words will break you in other ways. Here are a few from the landmark 1968 play The Boys in the Band, now revived on Broadway: “faggot”, “fairy”, “pansy”, “queer”, “cocksucker”, “goddamn little mincing swish”, “goddamn freak”.
This mordant comedy-drama, now revived on Broadway in a starry, glossy and occasionally glib production from the director Joe Mantello, is set over the course of an evening in a groovy bachelor pad on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Michael (Jim Parsons, first dry and then acidic), an underemployed writer, has gathered seven gay friends, one dubiously straight former college roommate and one singing cowboy of datable pitch to celebrate the birthday of Harold (Zachary Quinto, almost unrecognizable in sunglasses, scarf, and drawl), a self-described “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy”. Predictably, there are not so many happy returns.
An exposé, a witty comedy, a study in group dynamics and a survey of queer self-loathing in its several varieties, the play was a sensation when it debuted in pre-Stonewall 1968 and then vilified among the gay community a few years later when it was decided that its portrait of drinking, drugging, bitching men did not perhaps help the cause. Staging the play 50 years later provides an opportunity to see how far a culture has advanced and how far it hasn’t.
Seen from some vantages, it’s all rainbow flags and smiley faces. The US has achieved marriage equality, for now anyway, and many people who don’t identify as heterosexual no longer feel compelled to closet themselves. Aids, which postdates this play, but seems to be prefigured in its discussion of the bathhouses and an analyst who couldn’t make a session because of “a virus or something, he looked awful”, continues to transform from a terminal illness into a chronic one. One of the play’s producers, Ryan Murphy, an openly gay man, is pretty much the hottest thing in entertainment and the play’s cast is made up mostly if not entirely of openly gay actors, including Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, a thing unimaginable even a few decades ago. The actors are doing strong work, though a few of them keep signaling just how strong that work is.
If the actors don’t show their age, the play does. It’s still funny – rich in off-color bon mots – and still genuinely uncomfortable, especially when Michael, seemingly the protagonist, begins to color his witticisms with racism and antisemitism. When it works best, it’s hilarious and vicious, like the subtext of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had split for New York City and decided to throw its own shindig. But the structure is increasingly schematic, with nearly every character getting his chance to monologue and in a second half mostly given over to a grotesque game of telephone. Also, its themes are crushingly obvious. “If we … if we could just learn, not to hate ourselves so much,” Michael moans.
At a preview performance that line seemed to resonate with an enthusiastic and mostly male crowd who gave every actor not only entrance applause, but exit applause, too. But maybe self-hatred isn’t really the problem. Or at least not the worst problem. You can look to the suicides of bullied queer teens, the homophobia of our current administration, the fact that few of the actors onstage, however handsome and appealing, are able to snag straight roles now that they are out, the fact that so many of the slurs the play uses still echo on playgrounds and social media sites, to see that maybe other people’s hatred is the real party killer.