With two commercial transfers in less than a year, Jon Marans’ pre-Stonewall gay-rights drama, “The Temperamentals,” has acquired a high-profile space (New World Stages, home of “Avenue Q” and others), a new cast member and new levels of nuance in Michael Urie’s perf. The only thing that hasn’t quite been fixed is the script, an intermittently affecting but clumsily phrased contraption that’s more interesting for its underexplored subject matter than its insight.
Thomas Jay Ryan has further deepened the principal role of Harry Hay, however, playing the part with an utterly weird intensity and vigor. Last seen on Broadway as oblivious husband to a sexually confused woman in Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room,” Ryan modulates the brooding that he brought to this play’s original incarnation. In doing so, he reveals Hay to be a series of messy contradictions.
On the one hand, Hay seems tailored for straitlaced middle management — he looks like he was born wearing that gray two-button suit. On the other, when we first see him, he’s getting an exhibitionist thrill out of furtively resting his wingtip on the foot of his boyfriend, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Urie), in a public diner. He has a freak flag; he’s just not yet flying it in public yet.
It’s moments like these that keep the play’s engine running, even when Marans seems bent on pouring sugar in its gas tank. One offbeat scene recalls Freudian dream-sequence montages from ’50s dramas, and not in a campy way; three or four more include exposition about as graceful as a pseudo-science lecture from Captain Kirk.
What keeps this sort of thing from getting too onerous is that Marans has taken for his subject a fascinating period in the history of the gay rights movement about which there’s much extant scholarship but relatively little film, television or theater. The gay marriage debate has sparked a lot of new work about the history of American homosexuality, but not much of it extends back beyond 1969, when the Stonewall Riots brought the topic roaring into the public consciousness.
What Marans does effectively — with a lot of help from helmer Jonathan Silverstein — is create an atmosphere of extreme, almost Kafka-esque paranoia, in which the wrong word, or even the right word said the wrong way, could end a career, a friendship or a life.
Silverstein’s work amends a lot of the play’s other weaknesses, too. Ryan and Urie (“Ugly Betty”) have unmistakable chemistry, and the half-dozen perfs by new addition Arnie Burton (who displayed his virtuoso multicharacter skills in “The 39 Steps”), especially his turn as a slimy Vincente Minnelli, add depth to the play’s world.
Ultimately, though, the script’s flaws are more glaring in this enhanced production than they were when the play was in a tiny, ramshackle theater.
With all-pro tech aspects (including Clint Ramos’ upgraded costumes), it’s easier for the play’s marketing team to tap into the trendy mid-century fashion aesthetic (“Mad Men” is even mentioned in the new tagline) that will help “The Temperamentals” sell. But it’s harder for the actors to transmit the material’s significance to its larger, higher-paying aud. In the end, the onus is (perhaps unfairly) on Ryan and Urie again, but they rise to the occasion.