nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 25, 2010
It is important that you know about Harry Hay. In 1950, he and his lover, the designer Rudy Gernreich (who designed the topless bathing suit), and three friends co-founded The Mattachine Society, the earliest gay rights organization in the United States (if you don't count Henry Gerber's short-lived Society for Human Rights in Chicago in 1924). Nearly 30 years later, he and his partner, the inventor John Burnside (who invented the teleidoscope), and two friends co-founded The Radical Faeries, the earliest genderqueer-neopagan movement in the United States (if you don't count Arthur Evans's smaller and more carnal The Faery Circle in San Francisco in 1975). Formerly, a husband, father, teacher, and devoted member of the Communist party, Hay became a passionate, innovative, and not easily-celebrated figure in the GLBT community—criticizing the exclusion of NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association) from pride parades and finding fault with the aggressively masculinist maneuvers of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), whose tactics aped the stereotypical behavior of heterosexual men. Like most history makers during their most perilous (and thus, inspiring) moments, Harry Hay did not fancy himself a role model.
In his play, The Temperamentals, Jon Marans shows us a sliver of Hay's life: his short but pivotal relationship with Gernreich, their founding of The Mattachine Society, and their withdrawal from the group for very different reasons. The prevailing symbol—arbitrarily introduced in an early conversation between Harry and Rudy—is that of a cameo: a small gem or sculpture carved in relief, contrasting in color with its background and often worn as a medallion (the show biz definition is loosely derived from this as well). Harry begins the play as a closeted "temperamental" (code for homosexual), married with two daughters and utterly petrified at the prospect of prominence, only to become an out and proud gay man with a gender-fluid wardrobe so as to never be confused with a heterosexual. Unfortunately, in Marans's drama form does not follow content, and a messy, startlingly unconventional life is neatly displayed in a narrative as vivid as a sidebar in a high school history book.
What makes The Temperamentals theatre worth experiencing is the exceptional work of its five-person ensemble. Harry's transformation from a meek and frightened man to an emboldened activist is, in the writing, a series of perfunctory pit stops, but Thomas Jay Ryan provides the restless eyes, the sweaty palms on the trembling hands, the bewildered grin of victory, the tentative sonorous voice, and ultimately the air of serene tenacity so characteristic of hard-won dignity. No less intricate and riveting is Rudy's slow, reluctant retreat into the closet (for the sake of his soon-to-be-explosive career) as portrayed by Michael Urie. With eyes bright as searchlights and a mouth that can make epigrammatic the most mundane utterance, Urie's Rudy is so obviously irresistible to Harry, yet so clearly bound for abundant commercial success, that their breakup is at once heartbreaking and (even to them) quietly inevitable.
The other characters as written are basically functionaries, fulfilling a biographical need and often purveying levity. Yet again, they are given gravitas by Arnie Burton, Matthew Schneck, and Sam Breslin Wright as Mattachine co-founders Chuck Rowland, Bob Hull, and Dale Jennings, respectively, as well as a slew of other characters (e.g., closeted men who are chilled by, dismissive of, or downright hostile towards the cause). Director Jonathan Silverstein has done a commendable job guiding such gifted performers; the production design could have used some more inspired stewardship. The blackbox-with-chairs austerity feels less sleek than slim, with the exception of Daniel Kluger's sound design, which punctuates the action with aural ambiguity.
It is important that you know about Harry Hay. Ergo, it is important that Jon Marans has written this play. I have no doubt other dramatists will plumb the depths of this subject in works that are as much of an upset to complacency as this temperamental was in life. But I defy anyone to find a more striking embodiment of Harry Hay than Thomas Jay Ryan or of Rudy Gernreich than Michael Urie. They are the real tribute.