Saturday, February 27, 2010

Brave Men and True: The Temperamentals

Near the end of The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s solidly-acted, emotionally moving play juxtaposing the lives of gay men in the 1950s and in the present time, there is a moment I found to be particularly poignant. The young modern-day characters of Philip and Oliver are attending a Gay Pride parade, and Oliver remarks on an elderly man dressed in flowery clothing he sees on the edge of the parade.

It’s just a passing comment, but it struck me at the time that this must surely be the “Oliver” or the “Philip” from the 1950s, someone who has survived all the years of virulent homophobia, the AIDS crisis, “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell,” and all the legal and political debates, and who has found a place of contentment in his life. Just thinking about whether it was the more self-aware and accepting Oliver, or the more repressed and self-loathing Philip makes for a fascinating consideration of what might have ensued during the half century between the two parts of the play.

Now, having seen The Temperamentals, the engaging, heart-warming, and uplifting play by Jon Marans, about the early gay rights movement in the United States, I wonder if the nod to the elderly gentleman in question might have been inspired by Harry Hay, the gay rights activist and central character in The Temperamentals.

I did not see last year’s original production of The Temperamentals (the title refers to Hay’s “code word” for gay men) at the Barrow Group Studio Theater, but I don’t think it could have been any better than the current one at the New World Stages, where there has been only one change in the cast.

Let me begin by praising the direction of Jonathan Silverstein and the wonderfully cohesive ensemble acting by the cast of five: Thomas Jay Ryan and Michael Urie in the lead roles of Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich, co-founders of what became known as the Mattachine Society, and their three comrades-in-arms, Arnie Burton (the new cast member), Matthew Schneck, and Sam Breslin Wright, all of whom contribute greatly to the play’s richness of spirit in portraying a group of men who refused to be victimized for the “sin” of existing.

As the play tells it, Hay conceived of starting an organization in the late 1940s to serve as a gathering place for “temperamentals” and a center for human rights activism for what he considered to be a maligned “cultural minority.” As models, he drew on the African American civil rights movement and his experience as a labor rights advocate and member of the Communist Party.

Imagine what it must have been like to be “out” and a Communist in the 1950s during the witch-hunting McCarthy Era, and you get a sense of the undertone of the play. It is a brave and scary thing these men are doing, standing up for one another and their fellow “temperamentals,” and everyone involved has captured just the right tone and attitude and style to tell this story in a way that is genuinely moving without being falsely sentimental or schlocky.

A real strength of the play lies in the gradual shift in tone in the performances of all, moving from reticent to courageous. This feels very real, where reluctant leaders arise from among the “just plain folks” among us, who see a void in leadership and are compelled to fill it. In this regard, special kudos must go to Thomas Jay Ryan. He appears at first almost to be miscast in the role of Hay—so “straight” seeming is his performance—but he gradually lets go of the businessman fa├žade, and with the simple donning of a magenta shawl, transforms into a proud gay man, totally comfortable in himself so that the man and the image are one and the same.

It’s a remarkable performance, devoid of gimmickry or flamboyance. The same can be said for the play as a whole. Gay characters are so often seen as comic sidekicks, flaming drag queens-with-a-heart-of-gold, or angst-ridden victims. The Temperamentals offers another option, an image of gay men as positive role models and leaders.

Note: The picture at the top of the review is that of Harry Hay, age 84, at a 1996 "Radical Faeries" event.

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