‘The Boys in the Band’: Jim Parsons Grapples With Self-Loathing in Netflix’s Revival of a Gay Classic
In his first feature since the end of “The Big Bang Theory,” Emmy-winning actor Jim Parsons shows a different side of himself in Netflix’s “The Boys in the Band.” A revival of a gay classic and co-produced by Ryan Murphy, Parsons delivers a riveting performance as Michael, a gay man living in 1968 New York. Based on the play by Mart Crowley, which he later adapted into a 1970 feature directed by William Friedkin, the story takes place almost entirely over the course of one fateful evening at Michael’s apartment, where he and his friend group of fellow gay men, along with a figure from his past, gather to celebrate a birthday. Parsons and the rest of the cast reunite with Joe Mantello, who previously directed this same ensemble in the 2018 Broadway revival.
When we first meet Michael, he’s scrambling to get ready to host that evening’s festivities. He’s interrupted first by an early arrival, Donald (Matt Bomer), his ex who is in a discombobulated state after being stood up by his therapist. The second disturbance is an unexpected call from another distressed man, Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s college roommate. As he is not officially out to Alan, he hesitates about inviting him over, but relents once he hears him breakdown in tears. Later, he is able to convince Alan to meet him for lunch the next day, but is shocked when he arrives unannounced at the party.
The invited guests include Larry and Hank (real-life couple Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins), a pair who are currently working through some issues. Hank may have left his wife to be with Larry, but he still has some traditional values, as he is having trouble dealing with the fact that his younger partner doesn’t believe in monogamy. Flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesús), provides much of the comic relief, although his humor sometimes ruffles Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), an endearing man who has to deal with be a double “other” as a Black gay guy. Then there’s Harold (Zachary Quinto), the birthday boy, whose relationship with Michael brings new meaning to the word “frenemy.” Along with Alan, the other unexpected arrival is a young prostitute known only as Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a gift for Harold.
Quinto disappears into the role of Harold, a self-described “ugly pockmarked Jew fairy” whom Michael razzes on for his dependence on anti-aging creams. Harold gives it back even worse than he gets it to Michael, whom he calls out for his self-loathing that stems from his Catholic upbringing. Indeed, Michael is racked with an intense hatred of himself, and he takes this out on others, even if they don’t deserve it, which is the case with Cowboy, who is luckily too dumb to understand the host’s jabs.
But no one provokes quite a reaction out of Michael than Alan, a married man who is possibly closeted. Most can relate to having a longtime friend from whom they have to hide a part of themselves, but the closets these guys hide in might as well be invisible. Michael claims that his former roommate doesn’t know that he is gay, which is laughable to his friends, as well as the viewer. Once Alan arrives, the situation heats up, especially after he reveals to Michael that he knows about his sexuality, in so many words, and makes some patronizing remarks. Alan further dampens the evening when he punches another guest. In real life or even in many films, he would probably be chucked out of the party at that point, but this being an adaptation of a play, all the main characters are stuck together until they can come to some sort of resolution.
For those unfamiliar with the other incarnations of “The Boys in the Band,” the title may sound misleading, as this is far from some upbeat story about musical theater. Fortunately, there are a few musical moments that break up the tension, such as when Harold cuts a rug with Cowboy to Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love With You.”
Crowley, who passed away earlier this year, penned the updated screenplay with frequent Murphy collaborator Ned Martel, and the pair took advantage of the medium, tacking on satisfying final scenes that help us further understand these men with whom we have spent the evening. The whole cast, which is comprised entirely of gay actors, is great, but Parsons really earns a standing ovation for brilliantly playing a man who is dealing wth a swirl of conflicted emotions.
“The Boys in the Band” begins streaming Sept. 30 on Netflix.