COMING OUT The Temperamentals looks at the founding of a pioneering gay-rights group.
Jon Marans's The Temperamentals (at Lyric Stage through April 28) begins innocently enough: a first date during which a coy couple engages in some flirtatious back-and-forth and plays footsie under a restaurant table. But the date comes with a hefty dose of danger: it's the early 1950s, and the couple consists of two closeted gay men. Brushing toes under the table could get them kicked out, arrested, or beaten to death. It's all very romantic . . . in a terrifying way.
This isn't just any clandestine meeting between homosexual paramours; it's a date between two future founders of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States. Will McGarrahan stars as the enigmatic, abrasive Harry Hay, who begins the play as a suit-clad, married professor who has little trouble "passing" for straight when he needs to. By the play's end, he's divorced, donning brightly colored shawls and skirts, and daring the discomfort of anyone he meets. Nael Nacer plays his lover, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, the charismatic and friendlier half of the pair and the real recruitment force behind the Mattachine Society's success.
Nacer and the other three men in the cast besides McGarrahan take on extra roles, including the other founders of the Society. Victor L. Shopov is founding member Chuck Rowland as well as famed Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli, whom Hay and Gernreich try to persuade to join their cause. Shelley Bolman plays the commitment-phobic, hook-up-happy Bob Hull, the funniest of the original four. Bob's latest flame, Dale Jennings (Steve Kidd), is the Society's crucial fourth member. In a cop's framing of Dale for "lewd behavior," the Society finally has an incident around which to rally support. Dale wins the trial by admitting to the jury that he is homosexual and explaining that the only real crime at hand is the arresting cop's bias against his sexuality.
Even with this triumph, the Mattachine Society struggles to agree on a cohesive message, especially under Harry Hay's extreme views. Even today, his belief that homosexuals should embrace their differentness is cause for contention among gay activists who would rather win straight supporters through assimilation. But back in the '50s, Hay was never concerned with anyone's discomfort, including Mattachine's other members. His refusal to compromise or dumb down his views eventually led to the splintering of the group.
Sara Brown's subtle set design reflects the instability of the group and of each character's undercover love affairs. The men move low-wheeled tables around a wood-tiled platform that has been outfitted with angled scaffolding. There's the suggestion of barriers and rooms but no explicit walls, emphasized by John R. Malinowski's lighting design: the men watch each other from shadows and sneak around low-lit corners, rarely safe in full bright lights. Director Jeremy Johnson's blocking emphasizes the constricted meetings — conversations often occur in a corner of the stage, with the actors only rarely spreading out to cover the full space.