Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Temperamentals


By Jon Marans. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein. The Barrow Group Theatre. (CLOSED)

Jon Marans' play about the gay civil rights organization the Mattachine Society originally ran at the Barrow Group Studio Theatre in May, and moved to the larger space on June 10 (we've used stars below to indicate reviews of the June extension.) Acclaim is surely one reason for the extension: Though a few critics think the writing could be stronger, all agree the play works largely because of the fine work of the cast, especially Thomas Jay Ryan as Harry Hay. Critics are also impressed by Jonathan Silverstein's ability to direct the play so well on such a tight budget.

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) The cast conveys the repression of the era palpably, along with the tremendous bravery of men who refused to accept the situation. Everyone takes on multiple roles except Thomas Jay Ryan, who brings the outsize Hay to blazing life. Ryan is adept at highlighting the many contradictions in Hay, who was simultaneously controlling and vulnerable, and in charting his journey from buttoned-down conformity to the flamboyant charisma of the man who founded the Radical Faeries in 1979. Michael Urie matches him in intensity as Gernreich, capturing the character's Viennese charm and quiet confidence and, despite Urie's dark good looks, locating his sexual appeal in his restless intelligence. Tom Beckett, Matthew Schneck, and Sam Breslin create vivid and distinct fellow travelers as Rowland, Hull, and Jennings and contribute virtuoso work in all the remaining roles, with a special nod to Beckett's Minnelli. Gernreich's artistic credo was "a bold statement on a classic pattern," and Marans has taken his advice, successfully shaping for the stage a sprawling story more naturally suited to film. The Temperamentals deserves a much longer life than this limited showcase run. A+
(Martin Denton) Jonathan Silverstein's staging is taut and tender, drawing maximal impact from a very minimalist set by Clint Ramos. The ensemble of five is nothing short of superb: Thomas Jay Ryan as the powder-keg-on-the-verge-of-exploding that was Harry Hay and Michael Urie as the smoother, sadder, wiser Viennese Rudi are the play's anchors; Tom Beckett, Matthew Schneck, and Sam Breslin Wright play virtually everyone else in the story and demonstrate humanity and versatility in vast quantities. (Schneck's apparently limitless talents include playing the clarinet; I will let you discover for yourself how the clarinet fits in.) Marans's script never wavers from its worthy purpose, which is to teach (or remind) us of the courage and audacity of these pioneering homosexuals (they didn't call themselves gay in those days; indeed, they called themselves "Temperamentals"). He captures particularly well the furtiveness and the fear of exposure that pervaded gay social life 50 years ago (and even more recently than that); he also reveals the ordinariness of these remarkable men, though, in wonderful scenes like one where Dale buys a suit for his court date. If Harry Hay is remembered at all nowadays, it's as an icon, but he was of course just a man—one who valued the freedom to be who he was, what he was. "No, we are not broken heterosexuals," he proclaims. "We are an oppressed sexual minority." We must be inspired by such a man, whatever cause we choose to fight for.

Theatermania A
(David Finkle) The play might have devolved into little more than a Powerpoint lecture had Marans not been so ingenious about constructing his work in short scenes during which Hay and Gernreich play out their deep devotion to each other, while the Mattachine movement gains traction and what seem like scores of peripheral parades through their lives and through their unceasing determination to legitimize themselves and their brothers and sisters. Part of Marans' ingenuity is having four of the five actors assume multiple parts on a dime, including sunbathing (and topless) men, ladies in hats representing some of the women in Hay's life, and assorted lawyers, policemen, and even HUAC interrogators. While Ryan commands as the usually serious Hay, the others -- even Urie, playing Gernreich with a cunning Austrian accent -- jump through the colorful character hoops Marans has devised. Beckett, Schneck and Wright are particularly effective as, respectively, flamboyant Chuck, reticent Bob, and tough-guy Jennings. Moreover, the requirements of the play's lickety-split pace are met by director Jonathan Silverstein, who also makes the most of a set designed by Clint Ramos on what must have been an extremely short shoestring.

The New York Times A-
(Andy Webster) Directed by Jonathan Silverstein at the Barrow Group Studio Theater, the cast is, to a man, excellent, including Matthew Schneck as Rowland’s friend Bob Hull (and others), and Sam Breslin Wright as Dale Jennings, a former policeman who risked imprisonment by admitting his homosexuality in court. But it is Mr. Ryan who anchors the show, bringing a flinty backbone to Hay’s evolution from pragmatist in a business suit to flamboyant activist. His transformation, calibrated yet organic, carries the audience along. The only sour note is at the start of Act II, a dream sequence in which the cast members, in mild drag, depict women in Hay’s life. Presumably played for laughs, the scene, filled with harpies and harridans, is a grating exercise in misogyny, its bilious hostility sharply at odds with the idealism that surrounds it.

*The Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) In fraught, tender scenes, Marans depicts Rudi and Harry as a same-sex Romeo and Juliet, tragically driven apart by an unyielding world. Meantime, the Mattachine Society, an epilogue tells us, dwindled, after Hay's ouster, into "a frivolous social organization." Facts tell a different story on both counts. However intense Hay and Gernreich's affair was, a decade later, Hay met John Burnside, with whom he would spend the four remaining decades of his life. Together, some years after Stonewall, Hay co-founded with Burnside his second significant gay organization, San Francisco's Radical Faeries. And though the Mattachine Society faltered, splintered, and lost membership after shifting from radical activism to a more mainstream-friendly campaign for social tolerance, it did not turn trivial, persisting in the effort to combat police persecution and educate public opinion. (It also expanded its gender horizons, giving early support to the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis.) Knowing it was there probably saved the lives of a good many gay men who, in 1953, were too frightened, or not yet angry enough, to support Hay's brand of protest. Marans's free hand with facts gives his play a jittery, incomplete quality, which, in some respects, heightens its power; its fragmented blips of event carry an intense urgency, echoed in Jonathan Silverstein's forceful bare-stage production, which is occasionally crude but always effective.

Time Out New York B
(Andy Propst) Jonathan Silverstein’s staging can be hurriedly fussy, attempting to create a sense of whirlwind in the group’s clandestine activities. But when the production slows down, it’s impossible not to be moved by events as diverse as the trial of a man entrapped in a public bathroom and Hay and Gernreich’s awkward longing to hold hands as they sing a Christmas carol at a family gathering. The work offers satisfying theatergoing that enlightens and also instills a desire to learn more about this unheralded slice of gay American history.

OffOffOnline B
(Edward Karam) 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.

New York Post B
(Frank Scheck) Marans' drama is a bit too sketchy to be fully effective, but the subject is fascinating, and the acting is terrific. Besides the supporting players, Urie is funny and charming as Gernreich, and Ryan superbly conveys his character's inner struggles, never more movingly than when Hay dons a colorful shawl and declares, "I intend never to be taken for heterosexual again!"

The Village Voice B-
(Garrett Eisler) Marans's sprawling script craves streamlining, and Jonathan Silverstein's mostly fluid production struggles against space constraints and too few actors (good as they are) in too many roles. But this passionate history lesson succeeds in showing how many different kinds of rights were at stake in what we call the civil rights era.

Variety B-
(Sam Thielman) Consider "The Temperamentals," a restrained play in a small space with half a dozen serious problems, handily redeemed by a truly terrific lead performance. Jon Marans' new piece about gay rights proto-activist Harry Hay (and his cohorts in the Mattachine Society) suffers occasionally from clunky docudrama exposition and some notably poor turns of phrase, but Thomas Jay Ryan as Hay gives the piece an unexpected gravitas and urgency. What ought to be a boring history lesson frequently transcends itself to become an engaging portrait of a man rightly obsessed with fairness.

Just Shows To Go You F+
(Patrick Lee) Jon Marans’ play is unfocused: it attempts to be both a history lesson about the gay activism of the Mattichine Society in the early 1950’s and a bittersweet love story about the group’s founders, Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich. As a result it shortchanges both: we watch events unfold as in a history play that haven’t been shaped for thematic impact.

Backstage A+ 14; A+ 14; Theatermania A 13; The New York Times A- 12; The Village Voice A- 12; TONY B 10; OffOffOnline B 10; New York Post B 10; The Village Voice B- 9; Variety B- 9; Just Shows To Go You F+ 2; TOTAL: 115/11 = 10.45 (B)

No comments: