Jon Marans' play reflecting on the loves and struggles of two gay rights campaigners is a clarion call to political activism in the gay community. Tim Byrne reviews
Most people who know anything about the history of the gay rights movement think it started with the famous Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969. It didn’t. Almost two decades before that, a courageous group of gay men formed an activist organisation in Los Angeles aimed at challenging the contemporary view that homosexuality was a depravity and an illness. They called themselves the Mattachine Society.
Jon Marans’ fierce and politically minded play The Temperamentals chronicles the formation and dissipation of this prototypical movement, led by the dogged Harry Hay (Angelo de Cata) and his boyfriend, the more pragmatic Rudi Gernreich (Tim Constantine).
The production opens with a "Community Announcement" short film from the 1950s, warning young men of the "dangers of the homosexual". As a device to spell out the pervasive atmosphere of dread that existed around the issue of homosexuality it’s effective but somewhat redundant. The play proper makes it perfectly clear in the opening moments just how groundbreaking and subversive this activist group would be to 1950s Los Angeles.
Harry is a paid-up member of the Communist Party, inspiring him to create his own manifesto, which he refers to as "The Call". When his lover Rudi sees it, he immediately recognises it as "the most dangerous thing I’ve ever read". Together they go about the risky task of enlisting fellow members to their progressive cause.
A fascinating scene involving the possible recruitment of film director Vincent Minnelli (played confidently by Angus Cameron) reveals the depths of self-denial at the heart of 1950s gay culture. While it seems every gay man in Hollywood is theoretically supportive of the Mattachine ideology, no one is willing to put his name to it.
Eventually a breakthrough occurs, and the two men manage to sign up three friends, Bob Hull (Jai Luke) and his current and former lovers Dale Jannings (Sebastian Bertoli) and Chuck Rowland (Angus Cameron). Together the five make up a board, agreeing that every decision must be taken unanimously. This will cause complications later, but for now ensures an undeniable sense of camaraderie.
Marans’ play manages the fiendish task of moulding real events into a dramatically satisfying structure with admirable skill. Excising two other founding members of the group allows for a tighter focus, and centering the action on the trumped-up trial of Jannings brings added tension. But the real success of the play lies in the sharp yet rounded characterisations.
Harry, the driver of the action, is a flawed and irascible human being, ambivalent about his sexual identity but paradoxically unwavering in his political activism. Rudi is the opposite: a seemingly confident gay man harbouring deep concerns for his career.
In fact, doubt and fear haunt everyone here. The threat of violence or arrest is ever present, which brings the men’s courage into clear relief. But more than the external oppression is the internal disgust. Not disgust at being gay, which is refreshingly depicted here as a given, but disgust at their own perpetuation of the heteronormative status quo. This play is a long way from The Boys in the Band.
Performances are excellent across the board. De Cato is superb as Harry, vulnerable but galvanising, a man on a mission the audience can’t help but rally behind. Constantine is equally brilliant as the charming, if ultimately less impressive, Rudi. Cameron nails Chuck’s comic pessimism and Bertoli is affecting as the reluctant poster-boy of the movement. Outstanding in support is Jai Luke, who brings effortless precision and loads of charisma to the role of Bob.
Chris Baldock directs with sensitivity and nuance, and is always attuned to the deeper resonances of the play. The set is simple but elegant, using chairs to suggest various manifestations of separationor community. The lighting (Jason Bovaird) conversely feels overdone and distracting.
The production notes refer to this as "Mad Men meets Harvey Milk", a tag line that seems gratuitous and somewhat inaccurate. Marans’ writing and Baldock’s direction are utterly free of theperiodfetishism of Mad Men, and have a greater sense of outrage than the breezy inclusivity of Milk. It is, in many ways, a clarion call to greater political action in the gay community, and a welcome one at that.