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The Temperamentals by John Marans – Off Broadway Theater Review

 

QUEER HISTORY 101

 

picture - The TemperamentalsTheater Review

by William Gooch

published March 21, 2010

 

The Temperamentals

now playing Off Broadway at New World Stages

 

On June 28, 1969, drag queens, a crowd of gay men and neighborhood supporters fought back as New York City police attempted to shut down and harass patrons of the Stonewall Inn. This act of resistance marked of the beginning of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) movement in the United States, or so we’ve been told. However, a decade before Stonewall, there was a burgeoning movement of queer folks that were organizing and fighting through the courts.

 

John Marans’ play, The Temperamentals, reveals the fear and loathing, the ostracism, and the downright doggedness of five early activists (Harry Hay, Rudi Gernriech, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland and Dale Jennings) who laid the bedrock for the modern LGBT movement. ("Temperamentals" was a coded term used by gay men to describe members of their tribe. The word itself illustrates the kind of secrecy and double life that same-gender-loving people were condemned to live during the McCarthy era.) The plot centers on activist Harry Hay and Jewish Viennese fashion designer Rudi Gernreich as they develop a deep, intimate relationship while forming one of the first gay organizations.

 

picture - The TemperamentalsJohn Marans brilliantly weaves a tale of resistance, betrayal, unrequited love and historical relevancy set against the backdrop of the glory days of the Hollywood musical, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in particular, the civil rights movement. Though historical figures move in and out and/or are referenced repeatedly— Vincente Minnelli, Joseph McCarthy, Judy Garland, and Martin Luther King—the play does not get weighted down by the luster of these icons, and Marans manages to craft an incredible story that speaks to everyone’s need to embrace their entire humanity.

 

There has been much criticism from the African American community that some social and political groups have borrowed heavily from strategies used by civil rights activists without paying homage. That said,  Marans walks a precarious tightrope by including references to the civil rights struggle. However, Marans sensitively handles this subject and rightfully gives credit where credit is due.

 

In the character of Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan), Marans presents an individual who is in transition. Harry Hay is first conjured up as someone—though committed to the cause of gay liberation—who is working out his own soul’s salvation. Man-on-man intimacy is difficult for him, and the need to hide his sexual proclivity behind a masculine visage is a shield against the ostracism that his more fey brothers endure. Like many gay men of that era, Harry Hay is married with children. Marans works through his many acculturated entanglements to embrace a newfound sexual and behavioral liberation.

 

picture - The TemperamentalsAs Harry Hay, Thomas Jay Ryan delivers a nuanced performance that triumphantly builds in the second act. In the first act, Ryan portrays Hay as an avowed Communist, familiar with struggle and being on the fringe of American normalcy; however, in the second act, Ryan turns up the volume and, with a candor rarely seen on American stages, captures Hay’s growth and dogged resilience in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.

 

Michael Urie’s (Ugly Betty) portrayal of Rudi Gernreich, Hay’s lover, transcends the typical portrayals of gay Europeans. Although the stereotypical effete gestures persist in Urie’s characterization, Urie expertly uses these gestures to enhance his performance. Articulated limp wrists and humorless droll expressions are defense mechanisms of a character that has experienced the ravages of the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism. Urie also passionately expresses yearnings for domesticity and commitment that some gays still desire.

 

The Temperamentals brilliantly distills the struggle that same-gender-loving folks have had to find their place in a country that purports to protect the rights and privileges of all of its citizens. And in this are history lessons for all of us.

 

williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Joan Marcus

 

 

 
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