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The Temperamentals

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Urie and Thomas Jay Ryan.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

You don't have to be an expert in modern gay history - or, for that matter, aware of even its larger nuances - to be transported by The Temperamentals. Jon Marans's incredibly engaging play, which just reopened at New World Stages after an enormously successful trial Off-Broadway run last year, extends the impact of the Gay Pride movement to well before its defining moment at Stonewall. But it does so with so much humor, brains, and emotional acuity that you'll feel you're watching a percussively vivid play and not a one-dimensional polemic.

Though Marans has crafted a remarkably approachable and informative script, the success of both the play and this dynamic production cannot be attributed to one person. Director Jonathan Silverstein has smartly upscaled and rounded out the details of his earlier staging to make the work both more and less realistic. And though the show's two shooting stars, Thomas Jay Ryan and Michael Urie (from TV's Ugly Betty), are energetic and award worthy, so too is the ensemble (Arnie Burton, Matt Schneck, and Sam Breslin Wright) among the most varied and colorful you'll currently find in any currently running show.

Were any of these elements not firing at 100 percent efficiency, chances are The Temperamentals would stall before even hitting the street. It should be too random, too scattershot, too obscure to work. The complex relationship between the closeted and married Harry Hay (Ryan) and the semi-out Rudi Gernreich (Urie), two of the founders of the more-than-borderline-Communist gay-rights Mattachine Society in the 1950s, shouldn't be robust enough to stay upright, given how much else is going on. The cornerstone legal case on which the Society turns and then spirals out of control, in which Dale Jennings (Wright) attempts to beat a solicitation rap by admitting to his homosexuality, is rather watery for a play's dramatic centerpiece. And you shouldn't care whether Harry, Rudi, and Dale, to say nothing of their eternally sparring partners Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull (Burton and Schneck), succeed in transforming attitudes decades before you know change actually took.

Yet somehow the disparate pieces coalesce into a work that's not just sturdy, it's unshakable. Neither Marans nor Silverstein ever considers the society's success or failure a fait accompli. The insecurities, warts, and outright hostilities between the men aren't just ornamental, they're integral; how each new obstacle is overcome (or not) is something you can't easily anticipate ahead of time. Who will sell out, and why, you can't know until it happens. Equally surprising are the transformations - some to respectability, some from it - that outline the schisms and differences that reportedly still characterize the gay experience today. Perhaps most tantalizing is that it's not always - if ever - entirely possible to tell what's reality, what's informed speculation, and what's outright fantasy.

Michael Urie and Thomas Jay Ryan with Arnie Burton, Sam Breslin Wright, and Matthew Schneck.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In other words, Marans has approached The Temperamentals as a play, not a political statement - which is precisely why it triumphs as both. Yes, he caters to convention in a few places - a "cameo" by Vincente Minnelli (Burton, in a compellingly low-key portrayal) is not quite an original device - but all in all insists on telling the Mattachine Society's story in sharp, fresh ways that defy easy categorization or assimilation. Silverstein's fluid staging, on Clint Ramos's highly adaptable back-room set (he also did the costumes) and under Josh Bradford's fine lights, alternately pegs the story as a corollary to The Boys in the Band, a Shakespearean bioplay, a Tennessee Williams tragedy, and a 1970s concept musical.

Never is any of this gratuitous or incoherent, however, and that's largely due to its leads. Ryan and Urie come across as a true power couple, the former the engine of the play's perpetual-motion forward velocity as a man who's determined for sexual and political equality, and the latter for the fine-grain intensity he brings to a man on the cusp of fame who may not be ready for a cause to deprive him of his greatest successes. (The real-life Rudi designed the topless bathing suit.) Ryan's stop-and-go fire and Urie's urgent tenderness make for a nuclear core of contrasts in a play that wants to show just how high - if not insurmountable - the stakes really were during the McCarthy era. The other actors flawlessly fill out the periphery, Schneck brightly on the comic side, and Burton and Wright wielding a darker heaviness.

The show's fleet-footed firmness can't be ignored, even if maybe - just maybe - the show has lost a shade too much weight since its earlier run. Clocking in at a shorter running time (two hours and 15 minutes) and looking and sounding just the tiniest bit less monumental, it has a slightly more mainstream feel than once it did. But this doesn't impact its powerful, unpredictable, and highly entertaining depiction of some major and undeservedly unknown figures at an early intersection of gay and American history.

The Temperamentals
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one Intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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