The birth of a movement is a perilous thing to put on stage. It can be fraught with sanctimony or awash in details that seem more dry than dramatic.
But “The Temperamentals,” Jon Marans’ fascinating look at the fledgling efforts of gay activism, manages to avoid those pitfalls while being entertaining, educational and emotionally affecting.
The play, now on view at off-Broadway’s New World Stages, focuses on the drive for equality by Harry Hay, a firebrand of a gay man in post-World War II Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, Hay championed the rights of homosexuals or as they were euphemistically referred to by Hay during the period, “Temperamentals.”
Hay and several others founded the Mattachine Society, named after a secretive, medieval, all-male organization that in its masked entertainments often criticized kings and the church.
And Hay, who died in 2002 at 90, was larger than life, fearless in his advocacy and in his energy to get things done. As he says in the play, “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!”
Thomas Jay Ryan portrays this difficult, sometimes strange man, neatly balancing his overbearing sense of purpose with his personal struggles, including his relationship with Rudi Gernreich, who would became a major fashion designer in the 1960s.
Gernreich was an Austrian Jew, a refugee from a war-weary Europe who longed to make his name in the movie business. Handsome, stylish and charming, he was the balm that soothed the ever-abrasive Hay. As the designer, Michael Urie of television’s “Ugly Betty” delivers an ingratiating performance, complete with Germanic accent. He expertly channels the man, who carefully camouflaged his sexual identity as he moved upward in the fashion business.
A trio of other actors, Arnie Burton, Matthew Schneck and Sam Breslin Wright, play a variety of roles. Under Jonathan Silverstein’s smooth direction, they effortlessly change characters, from Mattachine Society founding members to a parade of gay men, both in and out of the closet. Burton is particularly effective as film director Vincente Minnelli, offering words of caution to Gernreich about his career.
Marans’ docudrama of a script negotiates these stories with remarkable fluidity. But it doesn’t sacrifice character for swiftness.
The Mattachine Society eventually disappeared as the campaign for gay rights moved forward-from the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York to the ACT UP demonstrations during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. But “The Temperamentals” is where it began, a memorial to the often courageous, sometimes outrageous pioneers who deserve not to be forgotten.
New World Stages