note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Theater is a reflection of life. We attend live theater to enjoy, appreciate and identify with it, but to also learn from it. At the Lyric Stage Company’s production of Jon Marans’ “The Temperamentals,” the audience does precisely that - learn about the early rumblings of the gay movement, appreciate what gays endured pre-1960‘s revolutionary times, and become voyeurs as former glitterati such as fashion designer Rudi Gernreich and others are exposed as homosexuals, decades after being cloaked in secrecy.
In the 1950s, during the McCarthy witch hunts and Communist hysteria, an underground movement was building - the Mattachine Society, where gay men, living under the guise of heterosexuality, met together and drew up a manifesto promoting freedom of expression to be themselves.
Several homosexuals were also members of the Communist party, therefore under double suspicion.
In “The Temperamentals,” agents and detectives in trench coats and fedoras lurk in the shadows, on street corners, spying on men suspected of lewd, deviant behavior, hoping to catch them in the act, expose and prosecute them - along with Communists.
In Sara Brown’s stark, open set, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. The bare, frame has no walls. Composer-sound designer Arshan Gailus punctuates this paranoid atmosphere with jarring noises.
As rising Austrian emigre’ fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Nael Nacer) meets in secrecy with his married lover, Henry “Harry” Hay, an outrageous, outspoken teacher-activist-Communist, they’re fearful of holding hands or embracing in public - even in the privacy of a hotel room.
John R. Malinowski’s lighting casts silhouettes on a bare, white background screen, as detectives and agents hover nearby. As gay ex-cop Dale Jennings (Steve Kidd) uses a public bathroom, he’s baited and entrapped by a shadowy figure, accused of lewd, lascivious behavior. The cops brutally beat him.
This false accusation becomes a clarion call for Hay and Gernreich’s secret society. “The finger of history points to you,” Hay tells Jennings. When Jennings declares he’s a homosexual, ironically he’s released from charges. However, as the society grows, new members think the founders are too flamboyant and ask them to resign. “It was the right organization at the wrong time,” star Will McGarrahan said during the post-show discussion. McGarrahan effectively delivers Hay’s volatility. He obviously admires Hay, whom he calls a visionary who was unapologetic for his unpopular views and personality.
As fascinating as Marans‘ play is, it’s low-key. The truth is more astounding. Gernreich and Hay were lovers for only two years (1950-1952). Even though Gernreich was a co-founder of the Mattachine Society, he remained undercover, achieving success as the creator of the monokini, or topless bikini, unisex clothing, and other museum-worthy fads.
On the other hand, Hay, who proudly announces he was born August 10, 1918, the day the Titanic sunk, continued his outlandishness. He divorced his wife, (whom he married to cover his homosexuality) and adopted two daughters. He later formed more gay groups, including the Radical Faeries in New Mexico. He dressed in ridiculous women’s get-ups, which costume designer Tyler Kinney has carefully recreated.
Before Hay comes out, Marans depicts him as skittish, cringing at any public display of homosexual affection. He rejects touching female fabrics or attire, then does an abrupt about-face, wearing women’s hats, magenta and white lace shawls for starters.
In 1955, when Hay is brought before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in Southern California and accused of being a Communist, he’s asked whether he’s a member of the party, to which he replies no, having resigned a year earlier.
In a post-show talkback, Nael Nacer, (originally from Paris, France) said he had little information or video footage to guide his portrayal of Gernreich. Nevertheless, Nacer’s sensitive portrayal exudes panache, charm and sophistication.
Victor L. Shopov as co-founder Chuck and Shelley Bolman as boyish, happy co-founder Bob deliver solid performances.
Although “The Temperamentals” is enriching and teaches us the title’s origin and definition - what gays were originally called to mask their homophilia - Director Jeremy Johnson sets the pace too slow. These men created history with their accomplishments and strides, but they progress like a carefully planned travelogue, from scene to scene, with understated pathos and impact.
BOX INFO: Two-act play by Jon Marans, appearing with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston (140 Clarendon St., Boston) through April 28:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; Wednesday matinee, April 25 at 2 p.m.; talkback, April 15, following the 3 p.m. show; post-show panel discussions, April 12,26, after the 7:30 p.m. performance. Tickets: $25-$56; seniors, $5 off; student rush, $10; group rates available. Call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.