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A CurtainUp Review
Set during the onset of the 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, 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 (according to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia) "the Medieval French secret societies of masked men who, through their anonymity, were empowered to criticize ruling monarchs with impunity."
A Communist, Hay's direct sometimes reckless approach to the issues confronting the new organization would conceivably initiate resistance from the growing membership despite the fact that many of original core of members were not only closeted gays but also Communists. As dramatized, Hays' 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 Theatre. In that the theatre only accommodates 99 people seated on two sides, it is, to say the least, an intimate experience. 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 Old Wicked Songs, makes it clear with this play 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 was married to a woman for 11 years and had two children), and it's the conflicts they have that lead to their eventual split-up that keeps 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 deserving of 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. 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.
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