That “temperamental” was a euphemism for “homosexual” in the early 1950s is just one of the tidbits audiences may discover in Jon Marans’s impressive dramatic reconstruction of the history of the Mattachine Society, its founders, and the claustrophobic lives of gay men in the 1950s. Although the Stonewall riots in June 1969 are considered the birth of the modern gay-rights movement, The Temperamentals establishes that decades earlier there were ideas in the air that have become common currency in discussing gay rights. “We are not broken heterosexuals,” says protagonist Harry Hay, a former B-movie actor, Communist, and married temperamental. “We are an oppressed minority.”
Starting in 1950, the play follows Harry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his boyfriend, a young Austrian immigrant named Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie, employing a subtle Teutonic accent). Gernreich will go on to become a major fashion designer, renowned for introducing the string bikini in the 1960s. (Theatergoers may recall that Marans’ celebrated 1996 play, Old Wicked Songs, took place in Vienna; the Austrian connection here is more tangential, however.)
Although The Temperamentals takes the Hay-Gernreich affair as a starting point, it broadens through flashbacks to encompass the founding of the Mattachine Society and the stories of its principals. They include Bob Hull (Matthew Schneck), a gregarious playboy in the gay world, and his mousy ex-boyfriend but devoted friend, Chuck Rowland (Tom Beckett). Also crucial is carnival roustabout Dale Jennings (Sam Breslin Wright), whose open challenge of a public-restroom arrest becomes a landmark case, although his acquittal via hung jury is ignored by the mainstream press. In the characters’ whispers, glances, furtive touching, and oblique comments, Marans summons up a world of oppressive fear and shame. Daniel Kluger’s discordant sound design conveys the unsettled nerves that these men must have experienced as they gingerly sought out like-minded companions.
Most of the actors double as other characters—even Urie, who’s best known as the flamboyant Marc St. James on Ugly Betty, gets to play a thuggish restaurant employee, with aplomb, to point up that California laws of the era specifically forbade service to homosexuals. And the superb Beckett is periodically a natty, epicene Vincente Minnelli, who is approached to join the Society. It’s thought that, because Minnelli is married to Judy Garland and therefore must be heterosexual, he will be able to draw the sympathies of straight people to their cause.
Jonathan Silverstein’s bare-bones production in a small, black-box theater features folding chairs that, upended, double as terrain. The simplicity of the design (by Clint Ramos, who also supplied the beautifully tailored men’s suits) allows one to focus on the actors and the information—and there’s a lot of it. Swift cross-cutting helps convey mountains of facts quickly; however, at times they become overwhelming. A powerful scene in a diner segues quickly through a discussion of an “underground railroad” and then hurtles into a scene that, with its religious language, sounds like a church meeting, but turns out to be a Mattachine gathering. At such moments one is apt to feel bewildered.
Apart from the breakneck flow of information, occasionally Marans’ writing has the ring of contrivance from hindsight: Harry tells Rudi, “Someday the Temperamentals will not only be making the quotes, but be in them…. I guarantee it will happen.” And it’s unfortunate that Ryan’s blunt, macho Harry and Urie's Rudi don’t have much chemistry together. (That may be because the politics takes over.) Still, in an era when openly gay people are fighting for the right to marry, this time-travel back to the nuclear winter of the closet is absorbing, despite its bumps.
Marans writes crisp dialogue and has a nice sense of irony as well. Even as Bob resents the oppression of gays, he announces: “Some things are better kept separate. Like bourbon and barbiturates. Communism and Christianity. Negroes and whites.” It’s a sentiment that now seems as alien as the notion that gay men should find solace in marrying women, or that equal rights should depend on the will of the majority and not on the words of the Founding Fathers.