I finally caught up with The Temperamentals, upon its off-Broadway transfer, after two off-off Broadway engagements and numerous extensions thereof. It’s easy to see why Jon (Old Wicked Songs) Marans’ play has gained such support; it dramatizes the first, nearly forgotten foray into open gay activism, well before Stonewall, which started in 1950 when a teacher named Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) helped form a group whose mandate was the welfare and civil rights of both male and female homosexuals—a group to whom Hay gave the name which also gives this play its title. His cohort—whose identity was protected by Hay until his death—was the future-controversial costume and fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie), a Vienese Jew who, having escaped the Holocaust, had his own background of persecution that made American repression seem mild by comparison.
The play focuses on the group’s central core of members (the others assayed by Arnie Burton, Matthew Schneck and Sam Breslin Wright) and all the actors (save the one playing Hay) also assay various supporting characters. It’s all done in fleet, minimal-set, minimal-scenery, black-box style, which allows Marans and his director Jonathan Silverstein to cover a broad time-line and canvas of events with turn-on-a-dime transitions.
In a number of ways, The Temperamentals is the aesthetic flip side of The Boys in the Band (currently in revival) because where Mart Crowley’s now-classic 1968 play dealt with a repressed minority succumbing to self-loathing aas a result of living in the shadows, Marans’ play is about a group who refused to do so, and refused decades before such rebellion was conceivable to mainstream perception, never mind acceptable. There’s a bittersweetness to the history—that ultimately the group disbanded and faded from public recollection before its work was done—but that it existed at all is the triumph viewers of the play come away with.
I personally found the play to be less satisfying, and less moving than I expected—partially perhaps due to heightened expectations; partially perhaps due to what can happen when a “sleeper” event is moved into the mainstream, and its frisson loses the edge of having been a “miracle in a mousehole”—but that’s not to say it nay; if The Temperamentals isn’t a great play, it’s certainly a very good one, very well delivered, and one that seems to be needed now as much as The Boys in the Band was needed then. For it’s more than just a positive declaration of the gay experience—that’s nothing very new anymore—it’s a bright spotlight on a meaningful and uplifting chapter of American gay history. And that, in the context of drama, is still uncommon enough to be unique.
Speaking of The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, long one of my favorite plays, I have, for a straight fellow, unusually vivid memories of it. I’m not sure what prompted me to see the 1970 William Friedkin-directed film of the trail-blazing 1968 play when I was in high school: I had no gay friends (that I knew of); and my love affair with the theatre hadn’t quite yet kicked into full gear; nor had I seen the play itself. I do, however, remember it was in the days when a movie would open in New York City first, before wide release. And I remember asking my unbelievably splendid maternal grandmother, Lee, if she would take me—possibly because it was an ‘R’ rated flick at which I might get “carded.” And she did, gamely boarding the bus with me from Queens to Manhattan. More amazingly, she enjoyed the film. (I’m not sure what, if any, socio-political sympathies it did or didn’t engage for her—but I will say her curiosity, and her tolerance for other sensibilities, was boundless, and she found it all terribly interesting. As Yiddische grammas from Russia go, Lee was remarkably hip. Needless to add, I miss her. A lot. Often.)
I suppose, for me, there was the “danger” of seeing something “forbidden,” or foreign, or exotic, or otherwise arcane. I didn’t know from camp humor, I didn’t know from the gay lifestyle, my awareness of the gay community’s feelings of straight persecution was mild, at best. I didn’t know from anything, really, except easy stereotypes and the occasional feelthy beuk I’d see, but never touch, in the adult racks. I think I expected the film to expose the secrets of another world, to let me in on what happens behind closed doors.
And actually, it did.
The film showed me that homosexuals—were exactly like everyone else. They loved, they hated, they were brave, they were afraid, they were good, they were bad, and various complex combinations in between…and they deserved better from society at large than they were getting. Nowadays, of course, that’s Basic Humanism 101. Or should be. But back in 1970, for a sheltered, 16-year old kid from the suburbs…well, that was a paradigm shift of major proportions.
Shortly thereafter, at a record store not far from the movie theatre where I’d seen the film, I bought the Original Off-Broadway Cast Album (which, curiously, was on Herb Alpert’s otherwise untheatrical A&M label). I wanted to spend more time with the play, and with the actors (all of whom had repeated their roles in the film). I listened to it often enough that, twenty-five years later, I still have the play—and the nuances of that recorded performance, as directed by the late Robert Moore—damn near memorized. (I still have the record, too.)
Those memories have stood me in good stead as the gay community has gone through its own paradigm shifts about it. As you may know, the play fell out of favor in the years immediately after Stonewall. With gay liberation an open, radical cause, the self-hatred of the Boys characters, who had to live so much of their lives in the shadows, was looked upon with disdain. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that the social criticism relaxed and it became “okay” to connect the dots between the progress the gay community had made and how much The Boys in the Band helped to kick that progress into gear.
But the first mainstream NYC revival, at the late, lamented WPA Theatre in 1997 was nonetheless a little “revisionist”; director Kenneth Elliot didn’t let its second act be quite as dark as it naturally wants to be, and certain members of the cast never transcended their archetypes, making the play seem a little too neat, a little too overtly a polemic and a little too lightweight. This lighter touch also came in the wake of revisionist thinking about the movie’s impact. The common accusation—one still leveled today—is that director William Friedkin introduced a number of dark toned elements (most prominently a thunderstorm that moves the party from the balcony back to the indoor setting of the play—an “out” vs. “in” metaphor) that changed the performance values. But in truth, he was only enhancing values already in place; and that seemingly-forgotten recording of the play, made in 1968, served as sufficient documentation.
that even more time has passed, the
Transport Group’s new production, helmed by Jack Cummings III,
has unabashedly replicated the tone of the original, and even upped the stakes
by making it, as we say in the trade,
“site-specific,” a.k.a. “environmental.” A Penthouse photography studio at 37 West 26th Street has been rented and reconverted to the play’s posh apartment setting. The audience is seated in pockets within and around the action. There’s no putting a “spin” on the tone—if the performances are to be believed—because in an ironic sense there’s no “performing.” Acting, yes; but grand gesture or superimposed interpretation, little, because the near proximity magnifies anything affected. That’s not to say that there isn’t extravagance, nor that every single nuance works—as I say, the nearness throws the few false or forced notes into relief—but in general, this is The Boys in the Band as it’ds meant to be performed.
For those who’ve never ventured into this particular time capsule, here’s the premise.
It’s May, 1968, the East Fifties, New York City. A birthday party is in readiness. The host, at his apartment, is Michael (Jonathan Hammond), 30, a Catholic from the deep South who has renounced his faith and most of his Southern heritage for the life of a writer. Not a terribly prolific writer, but he has sold enough to have a little money—though not so much as he needs to continue his lifestyle. He is in debt up to his ass, though one assumes (and it is a tacit assumption, never so much as hinted at in the play) that the kindness of friends keeps him going. (Mart Crowley, whose semi-autobiographical Michael has appeared in three plays— “Boys…”, “A Breeze from the Gulf” and “Remote Asylum”—was similarly looked after by Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood; it is no coincidence that the latter part of Crowley’s sporadic career was spent as a producer-writer on the TV series “Hart to Hart”.)
Michael’s best friend—once a lover, but only briefly—is Donald (Nick Westrate); there for his weekly visit and to act as Michael’s support system. Actually they support each other: Donald has forsaken the city but for Michael—he makes his living as a domestic, and associates Manhattan with failure. Meanwhile, Michael has sworn off booze. It’s unclear as to whether or not Michael was ever an alcoholic; what is clear, though, is that it’s not a substance he handles well. It makes him hostile. And it is a savage, annihilating hostility.
But right now, Michael’s in good spirits and, notwithstanding his bitchy sense of humor, fine form. Though a phone call threatens his equilibrium. The call is from an old college chum, Alan McCarthy (Kevin Isola). Alan is distraught, needing comfort and advice; Michael reluctantly agrees to let him drop by. Reluctantly because Alan is straight. And very, very square. He would never understand Michael or his friends. Which means asking everybody to “play straight” for the hopefully brief duration of Alan’s visit.
Eventually, the other partyers arrive. The extremely fey, swishy Emory (John Wellmann); promiscuous roué Larry (Christopher Innvar); Larry’s lover, three-piece-suited straight seeming Hank (Graham Rowatt); the gently masculine black, Bernard (Kevyn Morrow), the minority within the minority—and a present for the birthday boy: a dumb, young hustler in a ten gallon hat (Aaron Sharff), rented for the evening by Emory.
And the birthday boy? Well, he’s Harold (Jon Levenson) and he hasn’t arrived yet, late as always. But Harold, by his own description, is a “32 year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” Though he is much more. He is, among the archetypes at this party, the ultimate homosexual. The arch observer with the wry, slow delivery, the devastating wit, the uncompromising sense of truth, and, underneath it all, some decency—unless he is crossed. And then you don’t want to be in his line of fire.
He makes his typically late entrance just when the party begins to fly out of control—Alan’s presence has upset the delicate balance—and, finally succumbing to the pressures, finally tired of pretending, Michael takes his first drink in five weeks…whereupon the party begins in earnest…
As has been written elsewhere, it is quite amazing to note how much of the play remains as fresh as the dew on this morning’s grass. It is also surprising to see how the stuff that is no longer valid in most metropolitan settings—the shame and the fear of exposure—has not dated as a dramatic device. It probably doesn’t hurt that beyond our cities, in many suburban and rural communities all over, the intolerance of the straight world still prevails.
As exhilarating as this production is—and as welcomely corrective—I do have minor qualms. Some perhaps exacerbated by the inevitable prejudice that comes from over-familiarity with any successful original incarnation…but I think perhaps accurate, for all that.
First with regard to casting: John Wellmann’s swishy Emory seemed (the night I saw him) a bit too self-aware a portrayal, and Wellman himself about a decade too old for the role; Jon Levenson’s Harold seems, in a different way, rather too studied. But in the case of both these gentlemen, the roles may become a more organic fit with repetition. And to be fair, they’re playing the most extreme roles, and the hardest to imbue with slice-of-life naturalism. However, they hit every mark, get every laugh and score all their dramatic points, so the trade-offs are more than tolerable.
The others, though, come close to being as iconic as their original predecessors, with the pairing of Hammond’s Michael and Westrate’s Donald being especially fine.
My only other qualm is with Act Two pacing. Mr. Cummings seems to have become a bit too indebted to the “surround” setting and its physical dimensions—wider than those that would be available in a more compressed proscenium environment—which elongates pacing, delivery and blocking sometimes to the point of flabbiness. The act could lose ten minutes easily without cutting a word. But perhaps this too will tighten in time.
most important is that this is an exhilarating re-examination of a spectacular
and pivotal American play. And even factoring in extensions already scheduled
it can’t stick around too long for my liking…
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