Temperamentals Opens Door on Gay Rights

What would an Uptown Players production be without a naked man in it? Its core audience, gay middle-aged men who flock to Uptown's gay-themed musicals and plays, seems to appreciate it. And really, who doesn't? More nudes is good news.

The actor in the altogether in The Temperamentals is Gregory Lush, who shows some dorsal nudity at the end of the play during an onstage costume change. Lush's character, Harry Hay, a real-life pioneer of the American gay rights movement, slips out of his somber gray suit and into a pair of embroidered jeans, bright-colored dashiki shirt and flowery sun hat. It's the only outfit with any color louder than pewter in this production and the transformation is like watching a butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

That's sort of the theme of this talky two-hour drama by Jon Marans, which tells its story in muted tones until the end when the gay characters finally make their rainbow connection. The play recounts the background of LGBT civil rights pre-Stonewall. The main men in the gray flannel suits are Hay; his partner, the Austrian-born fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (played by Montgomery Sutton); and their friends and activists in the short-lived "Mattachine Society" (all played by Paul J. Williams, Kevin Moore and Daylon Walton). Founded in Hollywood shortly after World War II, the group sought to establish "a highly ethical homosexual culture" and to make it easier for gay men and women to live openly.

But it was the '50s, when America thought Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover were straight. Hay, a teacher, was a Marxist at a time when being labeled a Commie or homo in Hollywood could spell the end of a career or land someone in jail or a mental institution. In the play, when a gay ex-cop (Walton) goes on trial on charges of "vagrancy and lewdness," Hay and his Mattachine men decide it's time to come out of the closet and declare that being homosexual shouldn't consign them to a life of fear and discrimination. It was a radical stance.

Rudi is ambitious, trying to graduate from assistant-designing costumes for movies directed by Vincente Minnelli (another closet case, played here by Williams) to designing his own couture line. He isn't comfortable with Hay making their relationship known. Their personal conflict is played out against the internecine battles within the Mattachine Society — they nicknamed themselves "temperamentals" — over how politically outspoken gays safely could be in the Eisenhower era.

It's a good story worth telling, and goodness knows that issues about LGBT rights are still relevant, but the play tries too hard to be heartwarming and meaningful, weighed down by its own sincerity and by characters who wallow in pity. Instead of being liberated by their activism, the men depicted in The Temperamentals are witty and glib on the outside, seething with doubt and self-loathing within.

The Temperamentals too often drones long bits of factual exposition, sounding like a spoken-word Wikipedia entry. In the second act, the history lesson is interrupted by a bizarre dream sequence as Hay confronts his mother, wife and other women, all played by male actors in dreadful wigs and gray skirts. For another talky scene, director Bruce R. Coleman, who also designed the flat gray set pieces, tries to sex things up by having the cast peel down to their boxers, but that's a desperate move. So is the tacked-on coda, a slide show of gay cultural icons post-1950, ending with the words "Gay is good." All right, already. We get it.

Uptown's hardworking cast is best when the play stops preaching. Kevin Moore energetically lip-syncs Doris Day's "Secret Love." Paul J. Williams brings comic flamboyance to several supporting characters, including his bitchy Minnelli. As the meaty ex-cop, Daylon Walton manages to convey vulnerability from beneath a massive set of pecs. Sutton, as the skittish Rudi, is rakishly handsome, using an accent that gives him an air of old European elegance. Lush, an underused leading man, imbues the Hay role with dignity and not too much pathos. He also has a luscious tush.

From buns to Bunburys and WingSpan Theatre Company's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, now winding up a short run at the Bath House Cultural Center. It's a respectable, conventional staging, directed by Susan Sargeant. There's just nothing particularly exciting or original about it.

Starring as Wilde's young Bunburyists (the playwright applied a different meaning to the word in the play, but it was sly gay slang for a male brothel in his day) are Andrew Milbourn as Jack Worthing, and C. Ryan Glenn as his upper-crusty pal Algernon Moncrief. Affecting come-and-go British accents, the actors move stiffly and uneasily, as though unsure where they should be standing at any given moment. They're more confident in the second and third acts when they have two actresses adept at comedy to play opposite: the twinkly Lisa Schreiner as Gwendolen Fairfax and pert Jessica Renee Russell as Cecily Cardew. As the fearsome Lady Bracknell, Nancy Sherrard kills some of her comedy by spitting lines with venomous sarcasm.

Wilde's farce about fictional Earnests and mistaken identities is a classic of English lit, of course. Even after repeated viewings (Dallas Theater Center had a dandy one a few years ago), there's always an amusing bit of dialogue that lands anew. This time around it was this gem: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

This mother of all British comedies is always worth revisiting, even when the production is merely milde Wilde.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner