Difficult to believe that Mart Crowley’s iconic and ground-breaking play about a group of gay men at a New York party celebrated its 50th birthday in 2018. It was fitting that the play, originally off-Broadway got the full treatment that year, and won a richly-deserved Tony.
Now Ryan Murphy has produced and Joe Mantello has directed a film revival with the 2018 Broadway cast , including a little cameo appearance by Crowley himself. Sadly the playwright died this March before the new film aired to great acclaim on Netflix where it currently sits.
Staged just a year before Stonewall, the play was important as it showed sympathetically the lives of gay men on the stage for the first time – and broke new ground in lots of ways. Sadly of the 9 cast members although 6 were gay they were not “ out “ and indeed were told by their agents that if they appeared as gay characters they would never work again.
This time round the whole cast are openly gay and proud to say so in an accompanying documentary, also on Netflix. Nor are they young actors at the start of their careers but well-established performers – including Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons who was so fabulously nasty in Ryan Murphy’s recent series Hollywood.
Does the piece stand the test of time ? Yes, it does though we may find some of the language offensive or at best inappropriate now and some of the characters a little stereotypical .
This Netflix version creates the wonderful opulent messiness of central character Michael’s New York apartment, with its large roof terrace and duplex interior . I assumed watching it that this was a real apartment but not so – it’s a lovingly created studio representation. When heavy rain forces the gays indoors , we get the full on viciousness of their claustrophobic and tensely awful party game.
Parsons stands out as the self-hating, lonely and lost Michael whose only refuges seems to be putting down his friends and nestling in the arms of the nearby Catholic Church.
Equally stunning is Quinto’s Harold – the birthday boy in whose honour Michael has thrown the party. While Parsons’ character specialises in nasty, sharp personal jibes, Quinto channels Harold’s Jewish and has more clever but equally stinging one-liners.
The play has a central ambiguity , regarding the uninvited guest – a straight college friend of Michael’s whose outright and violent homophobia is questioned and made out to be closet gayness. Crowley never tells us the truth.
Ultimately despite all the bitching and apparent internalised homophobia this is an important story about a community of gay men, getting angry about their oppression and as Harold leaves the nightmare that the party has been he tells Michael “ Call you tomorrow “ – a sign of some sort of continued friendship and group self-preservation that would prove so crucial just a year later on the streets of New York.