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Theater Review: 'The Temperamentals' at the Blank Theatre Company

April 21, 2011 |  4:30 pm

Temperamentals “Before Stonewall, an even braver group of guys stood up to the plate before there even was a plate,” an actor proclaims near the end of “The Temperamentals,” the uncompromisingly heartwarming docudrama about an underground gay rights organization in the 1950s (now at the Blank Theatre Company).

It’s generous of playwright Jon Marans to recap his message for audience members still puzzling it out, but how could anyone be unclear about the play's message after being hit over the head with it for two hours?

Not that the story of the short-lived but prescient Mattachine Society isn’t fascinating. We still have a long way to go in achieving equal treatment for gays (viz. Proposition 8), but things have been worse, and this production vividly dramatizes the suffocating closet of a restrictive era. Kurt Boetcher’s set, a two-level stage against a black brick wall, evokes the seedy places where “temperamentals” had to congregate, and director Michael Matthews’ stylized opening, in which men in trench coats and fedoras stalk each other with a mixture of menace and seduction, could be a film noir sequence. 

The lights come up on two men talking politics in a diner. When one presses his foot on the other’s, the other panics. It’s amazing that in this context (homosexuals whose sexual identity was discovered were routinely harassed, abused, fired, jailed and institutionalized) the eccentric Harry Hay and fledgling fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (yes, the one who became famous for the “topless bikini”) started such a radical movement. 

But although it has a good story to tell, “The Temperamentals” gets weighed down by its comprehensiveness. There are too many scenes in which people disagree with Hay (Dennis Christopher), only to be converted with startling rapidity: “We can’t do that.” “Yes, we can!” “You’re right!” Matthews tries to enliven these static confrontations by having the men get into a line to demonstrate their revived unity, or pump their fists in the air while chanting slogans. Sometimes they even break into song, not very well. In an absurd dream sequence, Hay confronts all the women in his life, played by the four other actors in long skirts. None of these embellishments disguises that we’re basically watching a history lesson in five voices — especially in the coda, in which the characters take turns fondly telling us what happened to each other later in life.

To the actors’ credit, they’re fun to watch. John Tartaglia is enjoyably flamboyant, playing “sweet, funny Bob,” as the character calls himself, to the campy hilt. Christopher as Hay has a convincing restless energy, although he can come off as grating rather than persuasive. Erich Bergen as Gernreich is an elegant Viennese with a slightly distracting accent. Occasionally the characters’ obsession with Judy Garland, as well as the admiration the script bestows on Hay for affecting a woman’s scarf and yachting cap (his final appearance in a flowered sun hat is played like a canonization), threaten to turn a moving struggle into “Queer Eye for the Straight Underground Resistance.”

“The Temperamentals” may not be quite a play yet, but it is a sweet, heartfelt, often charming homage to a truly brave group of guys.

-- Margaret Gray

“The Temperamentals,” Blank Theatre Company, 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 22. $26 Thursday and Sunday; $30 Friday and Saturday. Contact: (323) 661-3903 or Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Erich Bergen and Dennis Christopher in "The Temperamentals." Credit: Greg Gorman