Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals, which follows the birth of the gay-rights movement, is receiving a credible production from Mauckingbird Theatre Company at the Adrienne Skybox through April 29.
Years before the Stonewall riots in New York and the assassination of gay legislator Harvey Milk, there was the Mattachine Society—one of the nation’s first LGBT organizations. The Temperamentals focuses on the exploits of the group’s five founding members.
It’s early 1950s Los Angeles; America has just ended one war and is ready to start another. The nation’s politicians are obsessed with hunting down and eradicating communists and their sympathizers. It is against this backdrop of war and paranoia that Mattachine member Harry Hay (Matt Tallman), a Communist, crafts his manifesto. But it has nothing to do with foreign policy. Instead, Hay’s objective is “to develop a highly ethical homosexual culture” that is both visible and accepted in American society.
Hay sets about forming a secret society of homosexuals in his quest for civil rights. His first recruit is his lover, Rudi Gernreich (John Jarboe), a young fashion designer from Austria who fled to America when the Nazis invaded. “This document is the most exciting and dangerous thing I’ve ever seen. Count me in,” Gernreich responds after reading Hay’s manifesto. They’re soon joined by three other men (performed by Mike Dees, Carl Granieri and Doug Greene) and the nation’s first viable gay-rights organization is born. The men are faced with imprisonment if they’re discovered; we marvel at their courage and conviction, but the most shocking aspect is that Hay is married to a woman when he writes his declaration of homosexual independence. Nevertheless, the group moves forward, ironically meeting in secret while they discuss the importance of bringing their clandestine relationships into public view.
The formation of the society is a fascinating story. Marans is so objective in his reporting (the writing has a decidedly journalistic quality) that we rarely empathize with the characters. Episodic in the extreme, the play jumps between locations, and in Mauckingbird’s intimate but awkward staging, we get no real sense of place (Marie Anne Chiment’s era-specific costumes evoke the period marvelously). Taking an almost Brechtian approach to his subject, Marans’ play may be historically accurate but it lacks passion. Likewise, though co-directors Peter Reynolds and Brandon McShaffrey stage the play with admirable theatrical clarity, the production is strangely unemotional. Even the romantic moments between Gernreich and Hay lack heart. At times it seems that Marans is more concerned with educating his audience than getting us involved with the story.
In an epilogue, Marans reveals what happened to the Mattachine’s five founding members after the society lost its sense of purpose. As the play finally steps closer to our own time, we become cognizant of how much—and how little—things have changed for America’s LGBT community in the last 60 years. Even as we celebrate the accomplishments of Hay and his companions, marriage equality remains an elusive dream in most states. ■
Through April 29. $25. Skybox at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. 215.923.8909. mauckingbird.org