History? Noir? No, Just Exasperating
By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
No spoilers, but let’s skip straight to the end of “The Temperamentals” because that’s the most interesting part. The characters in the play by Jon Marans address the audience and explain what actually happened to the members of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group in 1950s Los Angeles. And their plain statements of fact are absorbing in a way that the choppy two-hour drama is not.
The subject is juicy, exploring a political history that predates Harvey Milk and Stonewall. The fight for recognition was furtive -- it didn’t help that a lot of these gay men were commie sympathizers, too -- which perhaps explains why Kasi Campbell’s production at Rep Stage is so shadowy and slate gray. Except for the conservative suits the men wear, you’d think the show was unfolding inside a submarine, thanks to the ultra-dim lighting and low, steady hum of ambient sound.
No wonder Nigel Reed, as chief instigator Harry Hay, acts with pent-up fury. Hay and his lover, Rudi Gernreich -- the Vienna-born fashion designer who would unleash the monokini on the world in the 1960s -- keep their relationship on the q-t while trying to recruit such heavy celebrities as Vincente Minnelli (played with continental hauteur by Vaughn Irving).
Hay, tired of society’s brutal double standard (although even he harbors a secret that is one of Marans’s better surprises), barrels ahead of the gang. Before long, he brazenly drapes himself in women’s shawls, and as Reed adopts this fashion -- chin uplifted, lips just edging into a proud smile -- you understand the glory and the danger of Hay’s increasingly confrontational stance.
Intriguing as Hay is, the playwriting is exasperating. Is this noir? Historical drama? Marans doesn’t sort out a style. Nor does he give his characters much playable dialogue. “You mean nobody is going to know about our victory?” one character frets after Dale Jennings (Brandon McCoy) is acquitted of soliciting in a men’s room. “There must be some other way to get our story out,” goes another leaden line. The terse script is woefully explanatory.
By intermission it feels like 60 scenes have flashed by, blacking out and cross-fading and making “The Temperamentals” feel like a slapdash paste-up. It’s hard to fault the production. Campbell has managed similar material at Rep before, often with the regal and witty Reed on board. The cast includes a vibrant Rick Hammerly (playing the most “out” Mattachine member, among other characters) and the always-incisive Alexander Strain as the romantic opportunist Gernreich.
“The Temperamentals,” which takes its title from a code term for gay men at the time, bristles with possibility, and with marriage equality in the air and in the courts, it’s obviously timely. (The play has been getting a number of productions around the country.) But you sense the blank spots and shortcuts because Marans doesn’t effectively dramatize this history. He teases you with it.