BWW Reviews: A MAD MEN-Themed TEMPERAMENTALS at Rep Stage
The poster for the Rep Stage’s new production of Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals unambiguously apes the Mad Men color scheme, font, and artwork. The publicity materials describe the play as “Mad Men meets Milk.” Mad Men red is a bold accent in the set and furniture. Clearly, this is a Mad Men-themed Temperamentals. It is an interesting choice for a play set mostly a decade earlier than Mad Men, in LA as opposed to New York, with no ad people in it, and, most important, all about the first flickerings of gay politics (Mad Men being mostly preoccupied with straight experiences and themes). The Common element already existing in the play that arguably allies it with Mad Men is the theme of double lives in bygone times, regular-looking gray flannel-suited exteriors concealing complex, unruly, flaming red ids inside.
It’s a nice conceit, but probably superfluous. There’s nothing this superimposed theme brings to the play that this 2010 Drama Desk Award play doesn’t already have. There is even a two-colors metaphor (polished versus raw stone) already in the show. This docu-drama about the men who created the Mattachine Society, probably the second American organization to advance what Justice Scalia would later sneeringly dub “the so-called homosexual agenda,” says plenty about the conflicts between regular-looking exteriors and the ids inside – which is to say, for these characters at least, the closet. But the closet is a much more destructive and differently driven place than the hotel rooms where Don Draper has his hetero hookups. Don Draper’s double-life sort of works; the double-lives that Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, and their colleagues struggle with are killing them. And unlike Draper, who seldom seeks to understand himself or explain, the need to identify their natures and thoughts, and to act upon them, drives the men of The Temperamentals.
It can fairly be said that what motivates Harry Hay (Nigel Reed) is at least as much the need to understand and explain himself as it sexual desire. When playwright Marans first presents him to us, he is a married man sneaking out on his wife for a furtive rendezvous with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Alexander Strain). Almost everyone in this world is married (for instance director Vincente Minelli, amusingly portrayed by Vaughn Irving) or, like Gernreich, willing to go out on public dates with women to camouflage his real social life. Few of them can visualize, even to themselves, what it would be like to regard the gay halves of their lives as normal, continuous, and public. (In fairness I should point out here that the question whether the historical Minelli was actually gay or even bisexual at all remains open.)
But Hay, in a wonkish way, persists in attempting manifestos, petitions, think pieces on what he and his friends are and how they should be treated and viewed, by others and by themselves. At one point early in the play, Hay expostulates that gays are not “broken heterosexuals,” in an era when that was exactly the way psychotherapy treated them and even their friends, even they themselves, regarded homosexuals. There is nothing, he comes to feel, that should prevent gays from asserting that they are unbroken, from living openly, yet leaving the closet is almost unimaginable for most of his mates. Even the Mattachine Society is organized like a Communist cell, there are no photos at meetings, and the telephone is hidden under a pillow, lest it be bugged. It is not only an era of considerable pecknsiffery, but McCarthy time, and the Mattachine members are terrified. The play does a good job of showing how the LA homosexual underground was thoroughly intertwined with the Communist Party, meaning that its members had two separate unmaskings to fear.
The play follows Hay as he tries, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, to get his fellow-“temperamentals” to gather, to organize, to be public, and of course to be proud. The first act culminates in the decision of Mattachine to allow Dale Jennings (Brandon McCoy) a member who had been entrapped by an LA police officer and charged with vice crimes, to stand trial. It will be, Harry hopes, an act of witness that will cause the public to reevaluate its views about sexuality. The second act starts with showing how the Jennings trial was both a success and a failure: it succeeded in getting Jennings acquitted, but flopped in changing public opinion, because the press refused to cover it. From there, the play follows as Hay proceeds, personally and politically, to try forging both an authentic identity and a political movement.
It is both touching and interesting to watch. Touching, because one can only marvel at Hay’s courage in coming out to and leaving his wife (though the historical Mrs. Hay knew of Hay’s orientation when she married him), and in decking himself out with shawls and hats more associated with women, and refusing to care about the impact of his sartorial choices, regardless of who might be upset by it. (Of course, untold multitudes have trod the same general path, but Hay had to do it as a pioneer.) Interesting, because in some respects we have come so far; for instance the group one night sets out to discuss the subject whether homosexuals should marry, and after a few moments the audience is clued in, by a gust of derisive laughter from the group when someone mentions the concept, that no one is even thinking about the possibility of gays marrying each other, the question being understood to mean simply whether gays should marry women. I guess the strangeness here is akin to the shock one sometimes feels watching Mad Men, a shock that comes from seeing a world from which ours has grown, and which is more like ours than not, but in which some very important things were very different.
In the end, as the play shows, even if the personal is political, personal trajectories and political ones can diverge. The sundering of Mattachine’s founders from the Society, and then from each other, is deftly rendered, along with the disagreements, persisting to this day, between those who embrace queer culture and wish to stay somewhat aloof from the straight world and assimilationists who view homosexuals as another marginalized minority that must strive for acceptance and integration.
In short, this is a big play, with big themes. I wonder if it is too big for a five-man cast to render properly. I am not knocking the marvelous actors gracing the REP’s stage, all of whom but Nigel Reed must double, triple, or quadruple to fill all the roles. It is not their fault. It just gets confusing, especially the dream sequence in Act Two, which has the four actors putting on women’s hats and playing female roles that are so swiftly and vaguely sketched we do not have the time to sort them out. (I am not the only critic to have flagged this flaw.) But the modern theatrical economy being what it is, perhaps it is necessary. I would rather have an underpopulated play than none at all.
That is literally my only cavil. Kasi Campbell’s direction is unexceptionable, J.D. Madsen’s set is bold, attractive, and functional, and Dan Covey’s lighting design is outstanding. Nor should I fail to mention Rick Hammerly, who portrays Bob Hull, probably the most self-accepting and emotionally stalwart member of the Mattachines, combining, in a remarkable way, solidity and a hint of swish. The standout performance, however, is Alexander Strain’s Rudi Gernreich. Historically, Gernreich was a Viennese Holocaust survivor, and Strain plays up the Viennese element, wry, wistful, cynical, charming, with just a trace of an accent.
This is great theater.
The Temperamentals, by Jon Marans, directed by Kasi Campbell, through September 16, at the REP Stage, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parway, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets $33-$40. 443-518-1500, http://www.repstage.org/Tickets/index.html. Adult language, adult situations, sexual themes.