Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA/Canada, 2020. Netflix. Screenplay by Mart Crowley, Ned Martel, based on the play and the motion picture by Mart Crowley. Cinematography by Bill Pope. Produced by Joe Mantello, Ned Martel, Alexis Martin Woodall, Ryan Murphy, David Stone. Music by Amanda Krieg Thomas. Production Design by Judy Becker. Costume Design by Lou Eyrich. Film Editing by Adriaan van Zyl.
The 2018 Broadway revival celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play is brought to the screen a half century after William Friedkin’s film version, with the entire revival cast intact and Joe Mantello at the helm both on stage and behind the camera. The cinematic update adds a few visual flourishes, there are traveling shots of the ensemble cast enjoying a sunny New York day during the opening credits, towards the end there are a few flashbacks and a brief, beautifully shot coda, but for the most part the script remains intact to Crowley’s original, taking place in one apartment on the night of a birthday being celebrated by a group of gay male friends. Jim Parsons is the generous and concerned host who does his best to pull the evening off without a hitch, hurriedly preparing for their arrival while his best friend Matt Bomer unloads the anxieties he meant to tell his therapist before his appointment got canceled. Complicating Parsons’ evening plans further is a phone call from his college roommate (Brian Hutchison) who insists on coming over to speak to him about something important, but the other guests show up to the apartment before he does, including the bright and effervescent Robin de Jesus, studious but charming librarian Michael Benjamin Washington, and Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins as a committed couple who enjoy performing their resentment and jealousy for all who will watch. Naive pretty boy Charlie Carver shows up and turns out to be the intended present for the perpetually late birthday boy, and this is the situation that Hutchinson enters in his search for his old friend, quickly unloading his narrow, suburban unease on the flagrant displays of sexuality that he witnesses with marked disapproval. The original play was staged in anticipation of a very heated period for the American LGBT community, the Stonewall riots were just around the corner and people were already beginning to feel the need to come out of the shadows (at least not in New York City), but at the same time, Crowley must make room for the abuses and oppressions of the past that have taken their toll on these men internally. It’s a fine line between catty and cruel, and the arrival of Zachary Quinto (doing an exact imitation of Leonard Frey in the original), the birthday boy, strutting his attitude like a curly-haired cockatiel, suggests that he will be the one to push us into a darker extreme, but it turns out that his brand of self-deprecation is self-aware, contained and under control. It is actually Parsons who flips a switch from gracious host to soul-baring monster, his insecurity ignited by his perceiving that his friends possess qualities he lacks, combined with generous intake of alcohol, taking the witty barbs they’ve all been tossing each other’s way and using them to plunge the entire room into mockery and debasement. The purpose of bringing this great script back to stage and screen, aside from the wonderful opportunities it provides actors to perform, is to take stock of where we are after the years and societal changes that have transpired since it was first produced: Hutchinson enters a room that does not belong to him and in which he is a stranger and, wielding his heteronormativity with impressive confidence, assumes a lead position as the “normal” guy in the room who doesn’t need a closed apartment door to feel free; the rest of the characters instinctively recognize this and succumb to his sense of superiority very easily, Crowley’s cynicism for this new age of liberation brilliantly expressing itself in a dynamic that then makes the second act’s game of emotional tell-all roulette happen with shocking ease. Progress is in the production’s comfort with its subject, there’s almost no physical contact in the first version to match the ease of its dialogue compared to this one’s more relaxed atmosphere, but the characters’ self-hatred and burned-out bitterness is something many can still relate to and recognize. It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, for there is also camaraderie and warmth in their genuine friendship, though with a cast of actors who, while all talented, look too modern and made up, it’s not as palpable as was felt in the Friedkin version, whose traumatic backgrounds were more convincing. This one is lazy about recreating the period, perhaps intentionally, and the actors look like they belong in a glamorous movie, but they turn in fine performances and Mantello brings out as much of Crowley’s heart as he does his sharp and biting commentary, a satisfying update of a very important classic.