By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Before there was Stonewall, before there was Act Up, there was the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in the United States. Mauckingbird Theatre Company, dedicated to gay-themed theater, presents The Temperamentals by Jon Marans, about the founding of this organization. This is a history play, meant to inform and inspire. Which it does, sort of.
It’s the bad old days of the late 1940s and early 1950s in Los Angeles, when homosexuals were all closeted and when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was frantically pursuing communists or possible communists. Homosexual communists had better be married and wearing a suit and tie if they wanted to survive.
Harry Hay (Matt Tallman), married with children and an ardent Communist as well as a gay man with a lover who turns out to be the clothing designer Rudi Gernreich (John Jarboe), a sexy Viennese Jew who had escaped the Nazis—both as Jew and as a homosexual-- join forces with three other men, Chuck Rowland (Mike Dees) and Bob Hull(Doug Greene) and Dale Jennings (Carl Granieri). The five of them, all political radicals, will found the Mattachine Society.
Brief google moment: “Mattachine” was the name of a French medieval masque group who parodied the follies of royalty, an explanation nearly unintelligible as presented in this play. This play’s title, “Temperamentals,” was a code name for “homosexuals,” assumed but unexplained in the play.
Actually, quite a lot is unexplained or muddled in Morans’ script. Is the play is intended to inform people (like me) who knew nothing of this history? Is the play intended for a young, gay audience who needs to know their legacy from the people who risked so much to gain them their civil rights? Is the play intended as a comment on the current right-wing attack on those civil rights?
It’s not enough for history to provide the facts; the playwright has to provide the plot and the characters (here entirely underdeveloped or, especially in the case of Harry Hay, incoherent); the director has to provide the atmosphere and the tone. Under the dual direction of Peter Reynolds and Brandon McShaffrey, the play veers from solemn sermonizing to sniggering winks and nudges, from odd bedroom scenes to complicated courtroom showdowns, from complaining about bad boyfriends to sappy declarations of loyalty, from understanding mothers to outraged wives.
The Temperamentals is full of interesting glimpses of an important story that never fully emerges.
Mauckingbird Theatre Co. The Skybox at the Adrienne, 3020 Sansom St. Through April 29. Tickets $15-25. Information: 215-923-8909 or www.mauckingbird.org