Jill S. Dolan Archives

The Temperamentals

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Gay plays, as they've proliferated and mainstreamed over the last 10 years, tend to address relationships between lovers, friends, and family. Plays by and about gay men often delve into sexual conquests and disappointments; the more exploitative ones use nudity to draw audiences and encourage a prurient, if fun, spectatorial pleasure. Plays by lesbians, which thanks to gender discrimination remain relatively fewer than those produced by or about gay men, tend to be more relationally based, dwelling on family dynamics and the domestic sphere.

I'm overstating grossly here to underline how refreshing it is to see a play about gay (or "homophile") activism in the 1950s as the focus of an evening at the theatre. Written by Jon Marans, The Temperamentals tells the story of Harry Hay, considered by many historians to be the father of the U.S. homophile movement, who doggedly persuaded men to sign the manifesto of what he called The Mattachine Society. The Society was named after a troupe of medieval dancers who only appeared publicly in masks, an apt metaphor for closeted homosexuals of the '50s. Hay was the first to publicly call gays and lesbians a "minority" and to argue for homosexual rights along the lines of what would soon become the civil rights movement.

As an event happy to succeed by telling its important story, this production's one acquiescence to commercial pressure is director Jonathan Silverstein's casting of Michael Urie (of tv's Ugly Betty fame) in one of the supporting roles. Although some of his tv character's flaming gestures and flamboyant sarcasm seeps into his performance as Rudi Gernreich, Harry Hay's young Viennese-Jewish clothing designer boyfriend, Urie's acting is subtle, generous, and sincere, bringing depth and intimacy to the complicated exchanges between the two lovers.