Review by Tulis McCall
1 Mar 2010
Wow. And here I thought I was all Miss Smarty Pants about Civil Rights. I have a pretty good grip on American Women’s History, a medium sized grip on American Black History. Pin a rose on my patoot.
The Temperamentals opened these baby-blues. It could have been a better play, but it could not have told a more important story. One of the first, and now I think probably not the only, people to organize for the decriminalization of homosexuality was Harry Hay. In 1948 he created a group called “Bachelors for Wallace”. Wallace was FDR’s Vice President and ran on the Progressive ticket – you know, back when we had more than two political parties – oh, maybe you didn’t…. hmnnnn.
In 1950 Harry, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland, created the Mattachine Society whose purpose was to unite, inform and empower homosexuals. The name came from Medieval French secret societies of masked men who were the anonymous social critics of their time. This Society was anonymous because homosexuality was illegal, and it was Harry’s intention that it would not remain so. In a time when McCarthy was the newsbyte of the day, and Communism was the Terrorist Society Du Jour – making homosexuality legal was not an optimistic idea. It was bordering on demented.
This is the story of The Temperamentals (the euphemistic term for homosexuals back in the 1940’s). It is at once surprising and shameful. And like many plays that try to tell history, this story by Jon Marans comes across as a history lesson, a sort of docudrama rather than a rip-roaring piece of theatre. It does not make the story any less worthy, but the one-two punch that could have been delivered is all-together not there.
In the brief time I have had to research Mr. Hay, and in a conversation that I had with someone who knew him, the quality that comes across is “fierce.” The guy was fierce. As would be any person who chooses to divert the flow of a social stream and expect to stay alive: Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Blackwell, Jeannette Rankin. Know them?
Harry Hay didn’t want to “fit in”. He wanted security and equality, the right to be who he was without qualification. "No, we are not broken heterosexuals. No! We have our own unique consciousness much different from heterosexuals " Hay wanted separate but equal. Dig that!
Hay was also waging a battle on more than one front. Not only was he fighting the status quo, he was fighting his own people who didn’t want to rock the boat. People who wouldn’t sign petitions. People who wouldn’t meet in public places. And people like Vincent Minnelli: “There are two subjects today one must never discuss in the open air. The first one, for fear of reprisal. The second, for fear of making it mundane….” Harry was fighting the people who thought homosexuality was immoral and/or a disease, and people who wanted to stay in their closets.
Talk about fierce. This guy was Herculean.
It is that fierceness which is nearly absent in this production, both in the script and in Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance. Ryan’s role is more of a professor throughout. He teaches the other characters as well as us the audience. Ryan occasionally raises his voice, but this Harry Hay is more interested in making his ideas clear than in offending the listener. Fierce and radical this is not.
The rest of the cast and their corresponding characters come off much better. Michael Urie (Rudi Gernreich), Arnie Burton (Chuck Rowland/Others), Matthew Schneck (Bob Hull/Others) and Sam Breslin Wright (Dale Jennings/Others) are all given moments to shine. Each of these actors grab those moments and it is they who we watch fill in the enormous gaps in our shoddy pasteurized history. The story that was supposed to be about Harry Hay ultimately ends up being the story of the men around him. It is they who transform while Harry plods forward. The result is that The Temperamentals is a worthy production, but not quite what I believe the author intended.
Now that the tale has been let out of the barn, however, may there be many more to follow.
What the popular press said...
"Eminently likable docudrama."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Smart, passionate, and focused."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"Entertaining, educational and emotionally affecting."
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
"Intermittently affecting but clumsily phrased contraption."
Sam Thielman for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...