nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 3, 2009
Jon Marans's new play The Temperamentals is excellent drama, excellent entertainment, and excellent social-political history. It's about the formation of The Mattachine Society, which was the first gay civil rights organization in America. It takes place during the period 1950-1953, years before the Stonewall Riots; this is a somewhat lost, somewhat obscure period of American gay/political history that people need to know about.
On the one hand, of course, things have changed—a lot—since then. When the protagonist of The Temperamentals, Harry Hay, plans a discussion group around the topic "Should Homosexuals Marry?", a lesbian acquaintance of his says: "Which is ridiculous! To have masculine homosexuals marry women and then just have their affairs on the side—that does NOT take into account the suffering of the woman. So I definitely do NOT believe in homosexuals marrying."
Well that peek backward kind of blew me away; but then there's this exchange, between Harry and his lover, Rudi:
RUDI: Theres no reason to be ashamed... Of liking —"her."
HARRY: Oh...I'm not...It's just—the way guys go on. (doing an effeminate guy) "Did you see how she twisted her head when she sang—" (Sings, from the song "Get Happy") "GET READY, GET READY" (Spoken, imitating another Garland-obsessed gay guy) "Or the way she held that last note in the 'Trolley Song' and then the bells continued. Softer but still driving. Heaven." Their obsessiveness: itᒒs embarrassing.
RUDI (dryly): I agree. Same as guys talking about baseball all the time—so embarrassing. Right?
RUDI: But the way they go on about every move! (Imitating a sports fanatic) "Didja see how the shortstop dove for the ball? And...caught it! Then twisted around, whipped the ball over to the first baseman. So smooth. That is the fifth time he's done it in nine games! Fifth time."...That's not obsessive?
HARRY: But not embarrassing.
HARRY: That�s what guys talk about.
Still rings true, doesn't it?
Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich were authentic revolutionaries, and Marans charts the revolution they wrought in this deft, wise, exhilarating, and often moving play; he also shares their love story, which was a very dangerous aspect of their lives in the early '50s. The other important characters in The Temperamentals are Bob and Chuck (real people also, but we aren't told their last names until the very end of the play because anonymity was the key to safety for gay men with such public profiles), who were the co-founders of The Mattachine Society; and Dale Jennings a former cop and sometime carnival roustabout who was one of Bob's boyfriends. Dale became the first poster boy for gay liberation after he was arrested for "lewd conduct" in a public park after dark—this case is the backbone of the play and I leave it to you to discover how it was handled and what it meant to the movement that Harry and his colleagues were fostering.
Jonathan Silverstein's staging is taut and tender, drawing maximal impact from a very minimalist set by Clint Ramos. The ensemble of five is nothing short of superb: Thomas Jay Ryan as the powder-keg-on-the-verge-of-exploding that was Harry Hay and Michael Urie as the smoother, sadder, wiser Viennese Rudi are the play's anchors; Tom Beckett, Matthew Schneck, and Sam Breslin Wright play virtually everyone else in the story and demonstrate humanity and versatility in vast quantities. (Schneck's apparently limitless talents include playing the clarinet; I will let you discover for yourself how the clarinet fits in.)
Marans's script never wavers from its worthy purpose, which is to teach (or remind) us of the courage and audacity of these pioneering homosexuals (they didn't call themselves gay in those days; indeed, they called themselves "Temperamentals"). He captures particularly well the furtiveness and the fear of exposure that pervaded gay social life 50 years ago (and even more recently than that); he also reveals the ordinariness of these remarkable men, though, in wonderful scenes like one where Dale buys a suit for his court date. If Harry Hay is remembered at all nowadays, it's as an icon, but he was of course just a man—one who valued the freedom to be who he was, what he was. "No, we are not broken heterosexuals," he proclaims. "We are an oppressed sexual minority." We must be inspired by such a man, whatever cause we choose to fight for.