With The Temperamentals, now at New World Stages, Jon Marans has used his dramatizing wiles to write an instructive and consistently amusing lesson in gay studies by focusing on the seminal if now forgotten Mattachine Society. Indeed, this is the rare docudrama that succeeds at everything it gallantly sets out to accomplish.
The group, which was founded in 1950 -- a time when gay men referred to themselves as "temperamentals" in a manner not unlike men in Oscar Wilde's late Victorian England who wore green carnations to signal each other -- was organized by Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan), a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, and Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie), a Viennese refugee working in Hollywood as a sketch designer for Edith Head while befriending closeted director Vincente Minnelli (Arnie Burton). (Gernreich would much later gain worldwide fame for designing the topless bikini.)
Accustomed to championing unpopular causes, Hay encouraged new lover Gernreich to join him in recruiting other "temperamental" men ready to fight for equal rights in a repressive environment. The pair quickly convinced Bob Hull (Matthew Schneck) and his significant other, Chuck Rowland (Burton, again), to sign on. The society then began to build significantly in 1952, when newer member Dale Jennings (Sam Breslin Wright) was arrested in a public toilet for lewdness and decided to identify himself at his trial as homosexual and maintain he was an entrapment victim.
The case is dismissed due to a hung jury, Jennings becomes a community hero, and the society gathers more members, even as Hay and Gernreich have their personal differences over Gernreich's fashion career and Hay is summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The attending notoriety exacerbates intramural Mattachine conflicts so that by 1953 the four initial creators resign -- and the rest is reclaimed gay history.
The play might have devolved into little more than a Powerpoint lecture had Marans not been so ingenious about constructing his work in short scenes during which Hay and Gernreich play out their deep devotion to each other, while the Mattachine movement gains traction and what seem like scores of peripheral figures parade through their lives and through their unceasing determination to legitimize themselves and their brothers and sisters.
Part of Marans' ingenuity is having four of the five actors assume multiple parts on a dime, including sunbathing (and topless) men, ladies in hats representing some of the women in Hay's life, and assorted lawyers, policemen, and even HUAC interrogators. While Ryan commands as the usually serious Hay, the rest of the cast ably jumps through the colorful character hoops Marans has devised.
Moreover, the requirements of the play's lickety-split pace are met by director Jonathan Silverstein. Unlike at the cozy TBG Theatre, the play is now enclosed within a proscenium; as a result, a certain collaborative urgency ticket buyers felt when sitting within a few feet of the actors has been left behind. Ultimately, it's a minor loss that does little to change the impact of this important drama.
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