NEW YORK — You’ll laugh heartily at the juicy zingers in the starry, streamlined revival of “The Boys in the Band.” And then you’ll wonder why that’s all you’re doing.
Where, oh where did the bleakness go in Mart Crowley’s scathing portrait of gay men baring their souls at the most emotionally scarring Manhattan birthday party of the ’60s? Did it run for cover under the upholstery of Broadway’s Booth Theatre, where director Joe Mantello’s dispiritingly one-note production had its official opening Thursday night?
It’s certainly given no quarter on the stage, despite — or perhaps because of — the efforts of the nine men who fill the roles of this 1968 play, one that is doing only part of its job if the anguish the playwright was going for isn’t apparent. The cast is chockablock with actors who get applause on their entrances (Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, among them) but who rarely allow us to feel we’re authentically back in a time when it was shocking for gay people to be public about their sexuality.
The theater world has been looking forward to the Broadway premiere of the play 50 years after it made its first big splash off-Broadway, in a production that sparked passionate debate in the gay community and drew straight audiences in large numbers to a tragicomedy about homosexuality. It seems a just, if belated, development for a drama that marked a turning point in the American theater: There was the time before “The Boys in the Band” and the time after, when the treatment of gay themes became an ever more natural ingredient for the country’s dramatists.
For this new version, Mantello cut some longish monologues, some of what he considered antique references and even the intermission, all in what comes across as an effort to upgrade the accessibility of the story for a modern Broadway audience.
But comfort is not the amenity that “The Boys in the Band” was built to provide, a truism that might be apparent to anyone who has seen a more searing revival, or maybe even William Friedkin’s 1970 film version. These are men at once bound to and disturbed by one another, who lash out far more than they reach out. For evidence, see the malicious game that Michael, the self-despising host of the party, forces on his friends, as he seeks to purge all of his own desolate longing.
Michael is played by Parsons, widely known for the long-running comedy “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS and a bit less renowned for his fine stage work, especially in the 2011 Broadway revival of “The Normal Heart.” Here, as the major-domo of the misery, he seems still to be in the process of figuring Michael out. It’s a too-tentative interpretation of a character who has to make you believe he has control of the room, and then loses it catastrophically.
Quinto, meanwhile, faces the extraordinary challenge of playing birthday boy Harold, the (supposedly) pockmarked and otherwise physically unappealing speaker of inconvenient truths. He delivers the role in an odd monotone, a portrayal that seems to have been conceptualized from the outside in, rather than the other way around. As such, it feels half-formed and unconvincing.
Bomer fares much better as clear-eyed, placid Donald, who maintains a tenuous appreciation of Michael. And Rannells has some effective moments as Larry, the less faithful half of a relationship of some solidity with Tuc Watkins’s eager-to-couple Hank.
The evening’s most vivacious performance comes from Robin de Jesús. He’s an original cast member of Broadway’s “In the Heights” and recently played the leading role, Usnavi, in the revival of that musical by Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre.
His Emory, who wears effeminacy as a badge of valor, is both a comic force and a character of real substance. The phone call he makes as part of Michael’s game, to the person in the world he loves most, is the moment in which this “Boys in the Band” most potently reveals its aspiration to be more than just decent entertainment. Which it certainly is. That urgent feeling, though, should last for more than a moment.
The Boys in the Band, by Mart Crowley. Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Leon Rothenberg. With Charlie Carver, Brian Hutchison and Michael Benjamin Washington. About 2 hours. $69-$199. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.