Smart, sometimes snarky, and always engaging, The Temperamentals tells a tale of pre-Stonewall gay resistance – and one of the most convincing, compelling love stories onstage right now.
Set in Los Angeles of the early 1950s, the play begins as earnest educator Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) and coquettish young European designer Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie) covertly strike up a relationship in a diner full of other almost-indistinguishable be-suited men. Each quickly establishes his individual identity as we find that Gernreich, a Jew who fled the Nazis, hides a sharp mind and a warm heart under his flirtatious, flippant manner, while Hay has drafted a manifesto of gay (or as the contemporary code word has it, “temperamental”) rights, despite being crammed in the closet. Based on real history, the play traces how the two men start selectively spreading the word and form the Mattachine Society to protect gay rights. Their comrades include the callow, cavalier Bob (Matthew Schinck), his estranged live-in boyfriend (Arnie Burton), and ex-cop Dale Jennings (Sam Breslin Wright). But as the group makes their slow, uneven way toward empowerment, other forces start eroding the central couple’s commitment.
Artfully and entertainingly told, Jon Marans’ Lucille Lortel award-nominated docu-dramedy is lovingly directed by Jonathan Silverstein, who keeps the action moving, the innuendo lively, and the look Mad Men stylish. The show plays with stereotypes, but, while not denying them, manages to reveal how much more complicated reality is, as the excellent ensemble cast navigates the ever-changing emotional, political and intellectual terrain (and multiple roles). The also-nominated Urie, as the suave, sweet Gernreich, brings real depth to a role it would be easy to play as caricature, but Ryan – whose blue-blooded character is as staunchly determined when he’s flouting sartorial convention as when he’s delivering a political ultimatum – is the play’s true hero. And just like the character, the play itself evolves from straitlaced, stylized repression to an exhortative didactic insistence – but with a fervor and righteousness that sweep the audience along. Hay’s final transcendence is as inspiring as it is absurd, and it’s hard to imagine a better chronicle of his first steps than The Temperamentals.