Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Temperamentals fails to make Hay

Do they look temperamental?  Not really.
Sigh.  I admire the Lyric Stage for taking chances on scripts with a political dimension - really I do - and I wish I could back that admiration with warmer reviews.  But I'm afraid these well-intentioned folks keep bumping into the unfortunate fact that - well, they're just not political people, and they don't know any political people, and they don't understand political people, either.

Which may be why in Jon Marans' The Temperamentals, they've  chosen a fascinating political subject but a very weak political script, whose obvious faults director Jeremy Johnson unintentionally underscores at every turn.  As a result, even the actors (some of the area's best) don't really connect here - and that's rare in Boston theatre.

But first, how to explain Marans' failure, given his play treats some of the most flaming queens in gay American history?  It is a puzzlement; how could such blazing characters have inspired such a wet blanket of a play?

Clearly the dramatist's (worthy) intent was to bring back to our cultural consciousness the pre-Stonewall struggles of the Mattachine Society, America's first political group with, yes, a homosexual agenda.  But Marans adopts precisely the wrong tone toward the Mattachines and their era.  He seems to imagine the knowing irony of our current parlance can somehow give us entrée to the paranoid birth of the gay nation; but I ask you - does that make any sense? Honestly - I don't think so.  Nevertheless, the cloak-and-dagger tactics of the Mattachines - their oaths of silence, their clandestine meetings - are here given the Spy-vs.-Spy treatment; guys in fedoras lurk in dark corners of the sleek set, taking career-destroying notes before vanishing into the night (to the tinklings of noir-style lounge music, no less).

From this stance of bemused detachment, you take it that everyone involved really should just have known how things would eventually turn out, and realized they were all being a wee bit silly!  But of course they didn't, and the bravery of the Mattachines really should not be underestimated - even if their secret society fizzled, and today their baby-steps toward gay identity look quaint (or sometimes plain weird).

I will admit that this play reminded me, however, of the political dimensions that gayness has lost as it has converted itself into a commercial niche in our ever-burgeoning consumer culture.  Simply being gay - or simply having sex (any sex)- used to have political and intellectual resonance; intimacy of the kind epitomized by, say, Winston and Julia in 1984, was thought to be of a different order of experience from the machinations of the market or the coercions of the police.  Sex was not a product but a truth, and thus a statement of individuality, even resistance.

So it's not surprising that the Mattachines resisted the political order in all kinds of ways - many were Communists, in fact, so their political lives were perhaps even more dangerous than their sex lives.  They were rebels, in the old sense of the term - frightened rebels, perhaps, but still rebels.  Indeed, Mattachine founder Harry Hay was a kind of scruffy radical drifter - a Stanford drop-out, a rancher obsessed with Native American culture, a Hollywood stunt rider and a folk singer and a devoted cross-dresser, Hay floated between the upper and lower classes as well as just about every facet of both the gay and straight experience -  he even married and fathered children, though he ended up (in one final, controversial stand) voicing support for NAMBLA, largely because he resisted gay assimilation into straight sexual norms as a matter of principle.

That NAMBLA stand, though, gives you a glimpse into Hay's eventual quandary, I think; resisting everything turned him into a kind of incoherent self-parody.  And anyway, resistance is so passé today; for what (beyond the obvious crimes of pedophilia) is there left to resist?  Winston and Julia's secret trysts were illegal  in 1984, but now Big Brother would be happy to rent them a room, and livestream their coupling, too. O'Brien has won without resorting to his rats - which may be why the real Harry Hay can't be found in a play that has supposedly been designed to honor him.

Harry Hay in the 90's.
But if you want to better appreciate the cultural contradiction at the core of  The Temperamentals, consider the photograph of Hay at left, in what he called his "Radical Faery" look (note the cowboy hat, the flowered skirt, AND the Native American beads).  Then check out the publicity photo for the Lyric production at top.  Do you sense a fundamental disconnect?  I do; a buttoned-down fashion statement  was anathema to Hay - it was instead the natural metier of Rudi Gernreich, his lover in the heyday of the Mattachines (prior to becoming Gernreich's ex, Hay had sex with Will Geer - yes, Grandpa Walton!). The elegantly pompous Gernreich was then a minor, though rising, fashion star in Hollywood - he'd go on to brief notoriety as a designer of topless looks in the 60's (before designing the campy jumpsuits of Space:1999 in the 70's) - and The Temperamentals roughly aligns with his long dalliance with Hay.

Now there's certainly a solid dramatic conflict to be found in the push-pull between Hay's burgeoning radicalism and Gernreich's conservative chic.  But playwright Marans seems unable to tap into this; indeed, I'm not sure he realizes it should be his real theme - it's too politically complicated!  Instead, Marans makes his play all Gernreich, and no Hay;  when he should be conjuring the closeted gay world's temptation to join Hay's brand of crazy, he instead encases everything in so much camp alienation that the motor of the Mattachine's short-lived success (and eventual collapse) never coughs to life.  Oh, well; Marans does at least nod to Hay's transvestitism (which was probably the safest of his many predilections).

Given this void at the heart of the drama, I suppose it's no shock that Jeremy Johnson's production wanders all over Sarah Lee Brown's stylish set without really going anywhere.  It briefly gets traction as a superficial history lesson (when the Mattachines win a court case involving entrapment).  But beyond that it simply has no heat, no drive.  As Hay, Will McGarrahan repeats the wry, knowing  performance he has perfected in his past few shows - and it's still amusing, it just has nothing to do with Harry Hay.  Meanwhile Nael Nacer takes Gernreich's Eurotrash cool so much to heart that he seems to be having an out-of-body experience; he nails his Viennese accent, and looks great in his designer duds, but he has no chemistry with McGarrahan, and in their love scenes you get the impression he's somehow manipulating his body from somewhere offstage.  As their associates in the Mattachines, Shelley Bolman and Steve Kidd strike a few sparks here and there, but hardly enough to build a fire under the damp material.  I left thinking that someday we'll see a great play, and a great production, devoted to Harry Hay and the Mattachines.  Maybe when Big Brother isn't watching.


  1. Tom, I may just know the location of a large private collection of publications by the Mattachine society.

  2. At least shelf on a bookcase. It was several years back and so I am unsure as to whether my memory exaggerates-- I have the urge to say half a bookcase. Obviously it might be of historical significance but I didn't know anyone else who knew about the Mattachines. The question is whether the collection is still there.