Chicago Theater Review: THE TEMPERAMENTALS (About Face Theatre at Theater Wit)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THE TEMPERAMENTALS (About Face Theatre at Theater Wit)

by Lawrence Bommer on January 20, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


At a certain “tipping point” in the mid-20th century, passing for straight became one lie too many. A generation before the Stonewall riots, a generation after Henry Gerber started the first gay rights organization in roaring ‘20s Chicago, and over two generations after Oscar Wilde paid a terrible price for a libel suit, Harry Hay and his emigre lover Rudy Gernreich founded the Mattachine Society. Reputedly the first self-sustaining LGBT rights organization in America, it took its arcane name from all-male medieval tricksters who would spoof social mores in their topsy-turvy “feasts of fools.”

The Temperamentals, Jon Marans’ 2012 depiction of the homosexual group’s rise and fall, takes its name from a not-so-pleasant term for “queers.” For better or worse, that allusion to fanciful flightiness fits what we see and feel as a Chicago premiere by About Face Theatre puts us present at the creation and dutifully celebrates this seminal “origins tale”: At its flamboyant finest Mattachine was essentially a prolonged demonstration against discrimination.

Married for 11 years and with two kids, Kyle Hatley’s agonizingly idiosyncratic Harry Hay is a volatile combination of “pinko” crusader and closet case even as he issues a 1948 “manifesto” that was as much a declaration of independence as its precedent 172 years before. Hay was a complex outsider, equally driven by the Kinsey Report on human sexual variations to proclaim his non-conformity and threatened by “Red Scare” blacklists to disastrously deny his membership in the Communist Party.

Gernreich was an ambitious Hollywood costume designer (working for director Vincent Minnelli, another secret-sharer), an expatriate Viennese Jew whose entire family was murdered during the Holocaust: Mincingly mannered, Lane Anthony Flores’s rainbow-colored Rudy is a snooty little cutie, seemingly too delicate for Hay’s brand of outspoken activism. Fueled by dynamic differences, their anguished affair was, however concealed, as colorful as the Eisenhower Era of “grey flannel suits” and “organization men” could endure. Hays endearingly calls his charmer a “cameo,” an invaluable ornament carved in light relief.

Joining these founding homophile fathers was another “yin and yang”-like couple—Chuck Rowland (Rob Lindley) and Bob Hull (Alex Weisman). These early allies exercised a conservative check on Hay’s agitprop proclivities. That restraint seems alternately admirable or imponderable, given “gangster methods by the police” that included identifying suspects in reports of minority arrests as “N.H.I.” (as in “no humans involved”).

Rounding out these minority-rights freedom fighters is blue-collar lug Dale Jennings (Paul Fagen): Arrested by the police in 1952 for vagrancy and lewdness, this unassuming hero will become the organization’s seminal test case in a California court: Repudiating the usual defensive denial of homosexuality, he successfully asserts his innocence by exposing the cops’ biases and bigotry.

Enemies apart, the Mattachine Society made its road rocky, requiring unanimous votes (like Occupy Wall Street) and erupting in a friendly-fire debate over whether they should call themselves what they were–a “sexual minority”–and if they should stand out or “fit in.” In a strange second-act dream sequence (a problematic, if not misogynistic, drag turn), Hays imagines the women in his life giving him tough love and survival wisdom. (Interestingly or worse, lesbians play no part in the play’s closed world.)

An intractable ideologue ahead of his time as well as his associates, Harry inevitably recalls Larry Kramer, the embattled martyr of his much more moving, autobiographical The Normal Heart. As if to anticipate the turbulence as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis lurched into ACT UP, The Temperamentals confirms how often human-rights organizations destroy their originators. It didn’t help that, suddenly falling in love with frilly female scarves, the previously self-censoring Hays started to act out instead of up. (The ever-theatrical H.H. would go on to foment a very different group, the Radical Faeries; Rudy would seek fashion fame in New York City.)

At times the staging, by About Face’s artistic director Andrew Volkoff, is perversely playful, employing catty persiflage to gently mock the dogged righteousness of lavender pioneers. The “temperamental” liaison between Hatley’s provocative instigator and Flores’s mannered poseur/partner can irritate as often as amuse. But there’s no mistaking the bedrock (and bedroom) convictions of these literally self-sung “nelly queens.” Or the value of About Face’s 145-minute reclamation of their very uncommon cause.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Temperamentals

About Face Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on February 18, 2017
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit About Face

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment