Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Temperamentals by Jon Marans

L-R John Tartaglia, Mark Shunock, Patrick Scott Lewis, Erich Bergen,
and Dennis Christopher - Greg Gorman Photography 
by Joe Straw

The Blank Theatre Company is centrally located on Santa Monica Boulevard.  There is easy parking next to Gold’s Gym with only a slight walk one block west of Cole.  The theatre has a very small lobby, a couple of chairs, and a place to get your tickets. 

Never wanting to get to theatre late, one finds a place to sit.  After a brief period the lobby starts filling up with all sorts of male bodies and it’s getting so tight one can hardly breathe.  All those men standing, silently breathing in humanity, chatting quietly, and not moving a muscle, except the ones with the muscles. 

So while one doesn’t like being a sardine, one squeezes one’s self out into the breathable sidewalk.  And moments later the sidewalk becomes a bit claustrophobic as more patrons arrive in droves, genuinely eager to see the performance. 

The Temperamentals by Jon Marans and directed by Michael Matthews presented by The Blank Theatre Company is a fantastic show, with an exciting cast, and gives one the feeling of a special uniqueness not seen on any stage anywhere in Los Angeles.  This is one more reason to go to theatre and see something that will knock your (use your article of clothing here) off. 

“My true destiny is beginning.” – Harry Hay

Harry Hay (Dennis Christopher) is a man who, at first glance, is as inconspicuous as anyone.  It’s hard not to notice someone with extremely bad taste in clothing, scarf and other accessories.  But he wears this as a badge of honor, and this is the signature of his character throughout his life.

Rudi Gernriech (Erich Bergen) a Viennese Jew, Holocaust survivor, and costume designer takes a liking to Harry.  Perhaps they are opposites and are attracted to each other.  Or perhaps Rudi sees a challenge in fixing his fashion.  They meet in a seedy bar somewhere in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s and do so discreetly as to not draw attention to themselves because there are other eyes watching. 

Hay sets his foot on top of Gernriech’s foot.  One observes this, as being brutally masculine, as the force of Hay’s foot appears to mash Gernriech’s foot into the floorboard.  (No touchy feely here.) After a discussion about cameos they excuse themselves to make love in a clock tower of a Catholic church.

As he gets dressed, Hay tells Gernreich of his 2-year crazy dream of forming a special society for homosexual men.  He pulls out this document he believes will change the world.  And the presentation of the document is an opening to an inspirational moment of their lives.

Hay sees this document as the foundation of an organization of homosexual men fighting for their rights and privileges.

Hay tells him that the document is based on findings from the Kinsey study showing the prevalence of homosexual practices.  And he has practical experience in this behavior but also in organizing.  He had organized a political group, the “Bachelors for Wallace” campaign for a progressive Presidential candidate.

Gernriech calls the document “dangerous” but see the value of this organization.  He decides to join.  

From there they try to enlist some influential persons to join the society, one being Vincente Minnelli (Mark Shuncok).  Unfortunately, Minnelli is an a-list director.  He is directing An American in Paris and can’t risk being involved although he is sympathetic to the cause.

Secretly, the men start gathering, and in one of their early meetings two members perform a number “A Turnip Cannot Be a Wife”.  These two were Bob Hull (John Tartaglia) and Chuck Rowland (Mark Shunock) on the ukulele.  They are enlisted to be a part of the organization.  And on a hill overlooking Silver Lake, the four of them, Hay, Genreich, Rowland, and Hull form the core of an organization that they hope will change society’s view on homosexuality. 

Later, they called themselves The Matttachine Society or The Mattachine Foundation. (Historically the Mattachines was a name was taken from medieval troupe of men moving from town to town taking up social causes in their ballads and dramas.)

It’s probably not uncommon that the men in this foundation are intimate with each other. It serves to drive the drama in this historical play.

Hull and Rowland have a relationship, and not a very successful one at that.  Hull has a wondering eye and sets his sights on Dale Jennings (Patrick Scott Lewis). 

Jennings and Hull get involved although this does not last long.

"Harry was right.  You don’t ask about things." – Dale Jennings

Later Jennings is arrested for allegedly soliciting a police officer in a men’s room in Westlake Park.  Jennings enlists his friends from the Mattachine Foundation to help. They bail him out and Jennings plea of  “not guilty” was a pivotal moment in the Mattachine Foundation.  The Mattachines needed this cause to catapult their foundation into the national limelight.   

All in all, this was a very exciting and committed cast. One can’t even begin to see how Daniel Henning, the producer, pulled this out of his master showman’s bag of tricks. 

Dennis Christopher as Harry Hay was quite amusing.  He fits into un-matching articles of clothing as Hay would without questions and as the character one believes Christopher captures Hay.  It is surprising after creating the society, and having a lover, one finds out a secret that comes from a seemingly non-event surprising even avid theatergoers.  It is very funny moment. This was an inspirational performance by an actor who knows his craft. 

Erich Bergen as Rudi Gernreich was a particular type of character that is the throwback to the 50’s.  He is tall with pure white teeth, a mile wide, and wavy hair perfectly designed that seems to encapsulate the period.  As a costume designer, he is flawlessly dressed, and eager, in his way, to be a part of the organization. 

Mark Shunock as Chuck Rowland seemed to be the quiet progressive conservative of the group. He moved about on stage with a purpose as though he were gliding on skates. (One is allowed an inside joke.) Still, his was a rock solid presence, and natural, no matter what role he was in and he had multiple roles including the role of Vicente Minnelli.

John Tartaglia as Bob Hull was fantastic very effeminate with a wondering eye and a very nice stage presence.  It’s no wonder; he’s been a working actor since the age of two and one is sure that helps.  He has various roles and commands them all. He definitely has a face that everyone remembers.

Patrick Scott Lewis as Dale Jennings was the backbone of this play. Lewis has this ability to be vulnerable and strong at the same time.  There is a glimpse of humor during his most difficult moments on stage.  He’s a superb actor with a convincing subtext in his being.   He brings forth a multitude of strapping characters in each of the multiple roles he plays.  

John Marans, the writer, writes the play not as a linear narrative (There’s too much information available to fit the time frame.) but instead gives us snapshots of the special moments of the lives of the characters, who are, in principle, all reaching for a united spirited goal.   The play starts with an idea. The idea is placed on paper, and then implemented. The inspiration from Hay’s heart is the guiding force.  He is committed and fueled for motion.  No matter how small, Hay calls the group to action and with very little fuel. Later, the organization grows out of control. 

The history of every organization begins in the heart of a man and in this case, Hay is that man. 

Michael Matthews, the director, gives us a minimalist glimpse into the lives of these four characters focusing only on the sacred of moments.  Not enough time to give us an in depth character study.  What we get here are moments that fade like the wind, dreams with tiny cups and saucers, turnips and bad scarves.   We get a brief intimate look into the lives of men who float in and out of our subconscious.  Moments later they are gone and on to other parts of their lives. Still, it’s a fascinating look.

One prefers a narrative involving personal relationships and how they change during the course of events and it happens in this play to some degree.  One wishes the events highlighted on stage were emotionally charged giving us very high highs and even lower lows.

Kurt Boetcher, Scenic Designer, provides a two level set that is dark and uninviting.  It is a place for corners of intimate conversations away from prying eyes.  Nicely done.

Go see this and while you’re at it be a part of a men’s group. Find your voice and live peacefully with one another. 

Now through June 5, 2011

Mainstage: 2nd Stage Theatre
6500 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Harry Hay mural at Great Wall  of Los Angeles by Judy Baca

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