A restrained play in a small space with half a dozen serious problems.

Consider “The Temperamentals,” a restrained play in a small space with half a dozen serious problems, handily redeemed by a truly terrific lead performance. Jon Marans’ new piece about gay rights proto-activist Harry Hay (and his cohorts in the Mattachine Society) suffers occasionally from clunky docudrama exposition and some notably poor turns of phrase, but Thomas Jay Ryan as Hay gives the piece an unexpected gravitas and urgency. What ought to be a boring history lesson frequently transcends itself to become an engaging portrait of a man rightly obsessed with fairness.

Since we enter the play in medias res, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of Harry and Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie) when we first see them, sitting opposite one another on folding chairs under a bare bulb. Harry is in a nondescript suit, seriously grilling fashion designer Rudi, who wears a form-fitting black shirt and dress pants, being coy. It looks like the long-lost gay episode of “Dragnet.”

The initial impression one gets from the scene (once we see it played out fully) is that Rudi is about as close to being out and proud as a young man who wants a successful career could be in the early 1950s, and that Harry is a stiff.

Ryan has that effect, somehow. Director Hal Hartley turned the actor’s seriousness into charismatic pomposity, playing the title role in “Henry Fool.” In “The Temperamentals” the symptoms are similar, but the cause is quite different. Ryan seems inward-looking here, with a near inability to smile and an effortfulness about his gay identity that is first off-putting, then endearing, then amazing. When, late in the play, Harry puts a shawl around his neck, explaining that “I never want to be mistaken for a heterosexual again,” you understand why the mistake gets made so often, but you also understand how much it hurts Harry to be able to pass when he doesn’t want to.

Between this performance and Urie (“Ugly Betty”) as the conflicted Gernreich, who became his generation’s Calvin Klein, helmer Jonathan Silverstein has the tools to turn the play into a meditation on the problems of being an outcast. Which is exactly what he does. Marans occasionally saddles an actor with a truly unspeakable line (Ryan describes Hay’s family as “direct descendents of the Mayflower,” which would make them sailboats), but he’s done his homework, and a sense of his characters is always present in the performances and direction.

Ultimately, the show becomes all the more poignant for its sense of how far gay rights have come. Say what you will about the depressing nature of California’s fight over Prop. 8, but the days when it was an illegal, immoral, life-wrecking error to come out of the closet are passing. For Hay, who stood up for gay rights in a time when his career and livelihood were much more tangibly on the line, “The Temperamentals” is a worthy tribute.

The Temperamentals

The Barrow Group Studio Theater; 40 seats; $18 top

Production

A Man Underdog presentation of a play in two acts by Jon Marans. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein.

Creative

Set and costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Josh Bradford; fight direction, Ron Piretti; production stage manager, Samone B. Weissman. Opened May 4, 2009. Reviewed May 3. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Harry Hay - Thomas Jay Ryan Rudi Gernreich - Michael Urie Chuck Rowland - Tom Beckett Bob Hull - Matthew Schneck Dale Jennings - Sam Breslin Wright

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