«Turning,» warns Harold as he observes the host fall off the wagon and start lashing into his guests. «Revolution complete,» he adds later with cruel satisfaction, as Michael’s bitchy barbs evolve into vicious character assassinations. The bloodiest wounds, of course, are those inflicted on himself, an aging single man, riddled with Catholic guilt and addicted to living beyond his means as a way of compensating for the gaping emotional hole in his life.
Crowley’s debt to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is evident in the juicy get-the-guest portion of the evening. Michael’s targets include campy decorator Emory (Robin de Jesús), who uses outrageous humor to shield his vulnerability; grounded librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the one non-white member of the group, who allows Emory to «Uncle Tom» him as a means for his pal to boost his shaky self-esteem; and bickering couple Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Larry (Andrew Rannells), the former a math teacher leaving his wife and children for the latter, whose aversion to monogamy causes friction.
On the sidelines and treated as too dim to be stung by Michael’s derision is Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a young himbo hustler purchased for the night by Emory as Harold’s birthday gift. Then there’s uninvited guest Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s supposedly straight Georgetown college roommate, who has turned up hoping for a supportive shoulder but ends up enduring a bilious personal attack.
Michael’s flailing aggression is channeled through a dare game requiring the participants to make a phone call to the one person they ever truly loved, with a point system based on the extent of their self-exposure. This yields some affecting monologues, notably from Washington’s Bernard, whose double-minority discomfort is painfully bared when he relives his obsession with the son of the wealthy white family for whom his mother did domestic work.
Having played their roles for three and a half months on stage before shooting the film, these actors inhabit their characters like second skins. An accomplished actor himself, Mantello excels at drawing layered work from his cast and recreating the tight unity of a finely tuned stage ensemble for the screen. The advantage here is that DP Bill Pope’s attentive camera and Adriaan van Zyl’s mercurial editing constantly draw our attention to the shifting reactions of characters who on stage spend large portions of the action standing around in silent observation. A mix of vintage Motown and pop with primo jazz cuts — Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock — also helps keep things cooking.
Parsons does much of the heavy lifting in a role as notable for the corrosive internal damage as the verbal bloodletting. His meltdown — when Michael pushes everyone to the limit and Harold, who is more than his match, lets him have it — is a wrenching high point. Quinto makes Harold reptilian, aloof, a fiercely intelligent wit who has found a functioning way of coexisting with his sourness.
I particularly enjoyed the banter between de Jesús’ Emory and Washington’s Bernard, both while they’re mocking one another and then seeking forgiveness after overstepping the line. And Rannells is a wicked delight as the ultra-confident, sashaying player who refuses to apologize for his sexual appetites. But each of the men in the exemplary cast has his moments.