The Temperamentals by John Marans – Off Broadway Theater
QUEER HISTORY 101
by William Gooch
published March 21, 2010
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.
John 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.
As 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