“I was born on Easter Sunday. The Titanic went down the following Thursday. And why? Two Titanics can’t exist in the world at one time! When one shows up, the other has to go down!”
— Harry Hay
The history of the gay movement and the concerted activism of those who took a formal/public stand in support of gay rights in the United States are generally viewed from a perspective that is either pre or post Stonewall. With more than just a titular nod to “temperamental,” as a passe euphemism to describe a person who is gay, playwright Jon Marans has forged an informative and mainly engrossing play that falls into the genre of quasi-docu-drama.
Set during the early 1950s, “The Temperamentals” focuses on the activism of Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) who was at the forefront of the gay rights movement. As depicted in the play, Hay’s commitment to the cause was notably energized by his love affair with Jewish Viennese refugee and up-and-coming Hollywood fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie). Gernreich, whose family members had died in Auschwitz, gets credit for emboldening Hay to found the Mattachine Society, named by Hay after “the Medieval French secret societies of masked men who, through their anonymity, were empowered to criticize ruling monarchs with impunity.”
Hay, a Communist, has a direct, sometimes reckless approach to the issues confronting the new organization that would conceivably initiate resistance from the growing membership even though the fact that many of original core of members were not only closeted gays but also Communists. As dramatized, Hay’s personality is formidably balanced by Gernreich’s equally forthright but more “I am charming” declaration. As this is primarily a love story set during the tumultuous birthing of the Society, the play gives only passing references to its manifesto and its links to Communism in the early 1950s. But there was a price to pay for their bold stand representing a disenfranchised and oppressed sexual minority.
Five excellent actors using four sturdy wooden chairs for props are all that is needed to create a dynamic presence on the small platform stage of the TBG 2 Theater. The theater, which only accommodates 99 people seated on two sides, makes for an intimate experience, to say the least. As directed by Jonathan Silverstein with considerable flair, but also consideration for the actors’ proximity, “The Temperamentals” moves credibly between its dramatic confrontations and Hay’s occasional narrative asides.
Marans, who is best known for his successful play “Old Wicked Songs,” makes it clear with “The Temperamentals” that his intention is not to simply re-engage us with historic events but also to reveal through them a touching and significant love story: the intimate/romantic relationship between Hay and Gernreich. First and foremost, it is the chemistry between them that we feel, the obstacles they face that grip us (Hay has been married to a woman for 11 years and has two children), and the conflicts they have that lead to their eventual split-up that keep us deeply involved.
The early scenes of discreet flirting between the two are particularly well done. Ryan is terrific as Hay, a man who finds it almost impossible to contain his barnstorming approach to each new challenge. He finds the perfect compliment in the good-looking and breezily witty Gernreich. As played with a disarming Continental panache by Urie, Gernreich inexorably becomes a character who deserves a drama of his own. His meetings with film director Vincent Minnelli and other Hollywood-ians are cheeky peeks into the politics of a closeted Tinsel Town.
Except for Ryan, who remains constant as Hay, the other actors are assigned multiple roles. If Urie has to drop his excellent Viennese accent on occasion, Tom Beckett as Chuck Rowland, Matthew Schneck as Bob Hull, and Sam Breslin Wright as Dale Jennings (the names of actual men who founded the Mattachine Society) give their all to playing these characters as well as others. A major section of the play concerns the Society as it comes to the aid of Dale Jennings (Wright), a former cop cum carnival roustabout, who is entrapped by the LAPD for “indecent behavior.”
As it has opened during the 40th anniversary year of the Stonewall riots (1969), “The Temperamentals” is both topical and timely. Looking back, we can see the inroads and the detours that progressive and persuasive gay activism has taken towards obtaining legislation that legalizes marriage between same sex couples, an act that was not even considered by the Mattachine Society during the early 1950s. It is as earnestly simple in its presentation as it is irrevocably splendid in its purpose. ***
“The Temperamentals,” through Sunday, August 23, TBG (The Barrow Group) Theater, 312 West 36th Street. $50. 212-868-4444.
This weekend is your last opportunity chance to see the following “don’t miss” Off-Broadway shows.
The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Twelfth Night” with a cast featuring Anne Hathaway, Raul Esparza, Michael Cumpsty, and Audra McDonald received rapturous reviews. If you can’t deal with or have no time to stand all day in line for free tickets, consider this: A limited number of free tickets through a Virtual Line available at www.publictheater.org. On the day you want to attend, you can log on to the virtual line anytime between midnight and 1 p.m. to register for tickets for that evening’s performance. After 1 p.m. that same day, users can log on to see if they have received tickets through the virtual line, which they can then claim at the Delacorte Theater box Office between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. that evening. A Senior Virtual Line (over 65) works the same way. ****
The Amish Project
This is a solo show that is beautifully written and superbly performed by Jessica Dickey. I found it an exceptionally moving experience, one that I won’t soon forget. “A fictional exploration of true events,” as stated in program notes, the play “is the story of a schoolhouse shooting in an Amish community, and the path of forgiveness and compassion forged in its wake.” For tickets ($35) to The Amish Project at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place (between West 11th and Perry Streets), call 212-868-4444. For more information visit Rattlestick.org. ****