‘The Temperamentals’ makes Hay of gay Pride; ‘Earnest’ errs with irony
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
“Temperamental” was a code name in the 1940s and ‘50s for a gay man, like “friend of Dorothy” or “confirmed bachelor.” It was a way for one gay man to know he was talking to another outside a bar, and without wearing a green carnation as in Oscar Wilde’s day. The way American soldiers until recently lived in fear of being outed under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the entirety of the gay community lived in the post-War period.
That is, until Harry Hay came along. Hay started The Mattachine Society, the first gay rights group, two decades before anyone had heard of the Stonewall Riots. He took the bold step of signing his name to his founding principles, coming out, albeit in a limited media environment, at a time when being labeled as gay was career suicide, no matter what your profession.
He may, however, be the gay hero you’d never heard of. The Mattachine Society eventually failed, a noble first volley in a war that has not yet been won. But it and Hay deserve a lot of credit they too often don’t get; like Niccolo Tesla, they were upstaged by the Edison-like sparkle of Pride marches, Harvey Milk and the rainbow flag.
With The Temperamentals, about Hay’s triumphant effort (now at the Kalita courtesy Uptown Players) Jon Marans has masterfully crafted a work with a highly cinematic flavor. Scenes jump about quickly, like fast-cut editing, taking us from the bedroom of Hay (Gregory Lush) and his lover, fashion designer Rudy Gernreich (Montgomery Sutton) to the soundstages of Hollywood where closeted director (and Judy Garland spouse) Vincente Minnelli (Paul J. Williams) lends his checkbook but not his name to the cause.
But Marans’ real victory is in capturing the textures of gay life 60 years ago with a subtle, almost literary flair. You feel the prickly hesitation when a gay man asks for Rudy’s last name, and the self-hating aversion to seeming “too femme.” There’s a conspiratorial aura that feels absolutely authentic: Hay and his compatriots were conspirators, lurking in the shadows because that’s where society insisted they reside. The bravery it took to turn on the light astonishes you even today.
Director Bruce C. Coleman and multimedia designer Chris Robinson convey the cinematic quality with minimal sets and extensive use of video components both to place us in a host of settings and suggest their nature (a seedy urinal speaks volumes), as well as provide historic context with vintage photographs, although that can get heavy handed, especially a montage at the end which, while gratifying, goes on too long. (Coleman seems devoted to the notion, why suggest something when you can spell it out in capital letters.) Still, the abstractness of the production gives it an airy, timeless sensibility.
The cast is solid — Williams, Kevin Moore and Daylen Walton all succeed in multiple roles — with Lush holding the center steady as he escorts us through the halls of gay history.
If it sounds as though The Temperamentals is more educational than entertaining, that’s unfortunate; it is both. If you want to feel a real sense of gay Pride, watch how a few men paved the way.
Nobody captured the grandeur and foolishness of society as pungently and affectionately as Oscar Wilde. He was a living paradox, someone who turned a satiric eye on the superficiality of the upper classes, yet passionately and unapologetically loved everything about them. “How useless are people who have no actual jobs!” he seemed to say. “Why can’t I be one?”
The apotheosis of his social manifesto is The Importance of Being Earnest, a comedy of manners so sharply wrought that more than a century later, it seems as fresh and witty as a Jon Stewart bit. The script overflows with wordplay and repartee as Ernest Worthing (Andrew Milbourn) confides in his chum Algernon (C. Ryan Glenn) that although he intends to marry Algy’s cousin Gwendolen (Lisa Schreiner), with the approval of her abrasive mother, Lady Bracknell (Nancy Sherrard), his name is not, in fact, Ernest but Jack. This seemingly minor fib sets off a cascade of adventure and verbal slapsticks involving mistaken identity, money, sex and … well, just about everything. It’s a great play.
But WingSpan Theatre Company’s production, now at the Bath House Cultural Center, is not a great version. The dialogue is intact, and two performances in particular (the lovely Schreiner and Jessica Renee Russell as the comely young Cecily) capture the capricious, exuberant drama of silly people involved in silly behavior with very serious consequences perfectly; by the time Act 3 arrives, they are at full comic gallop, and the men eventually almost catch up with them.
Alas, that’s almost too late. The first act is saddled with an ugly set that lacks the requisite glamour of the era, and heavy, ill-fitting costumes that look like someone pulled them off the windows at the Von Trapp household, added a clunky bodice and washed their hands of further responsibility.
Another drawback is Sherrard’s interpretation of Lady Bracknell. The character, one of the funniest in all literature, is an imperious matriarch whose institutional arrogance rivals the monarchy itself. She cannot conceive that she is ever wrong — even when one of her beliefs directly contradicts another belief — because to acknowledge a mistake would be to undermine the social hierarchy.
But Sherrard plays her not as an aloof, self-justifying matron but as a sarcastic social climber. Seeing the first smirking roll of her eyes hits you like a 2×4 to the noggin: Is Lady Bracknell being… ironic? It hardly seems possible — she is a woman entirely bereft of irony. It’s as if she’s been modernized and lost her way entirely.
Still, there’s the music that is Wilde’s gift for the bon mot. There would never have been a Frasier without an Earnest, so if you’ve never seen a production before … well, even mediocre Wilde is better than none at all.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.