Data informs; memories burn. Taken together, the two equal history, the sense we make of the past. Neither supplies the whole truth. Time rewrites memories; historians assemble data to suit their own ideas. Either way, a telling fact can be omitted. After the world has changed irrevocably, imagining the past becomes a giant challenge, in the service of which the cold data and the burning memories have to work hand in hand. No one would call the process easy: History and memory make an ungainly, awkward, argumentative duo.
Gay history, with more than half of its story hidden in shadow, ranks among the hardest sectors to imagine. Gays born in the last three decades can hardly conceive what being gay before Stonewall involved. Even the word itself was once only part of a private code. In more public circumstances, gay men were “sensitive,” “artistic,” or, as in the title of Jon Marans’s new history play, “temperamental.”
The Temperamentals (TBG Theater 2) narrates the few intense years (roughly 1950–53) in which Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan), one of the gay-rights movement’s forefathers, launched and ultimately removed himself from the Mattachine Society, a quirky organization that helped pave the way for the movement’s explosive expansion after Stonewall. In Marans’s recounting, Hay found the inner strength to build such an organization through his love affair with the couturier (then a novice Hollywood costume designer) Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie). A Viennese émigré, much of whose family had died in the Holocaust, Gernreich combined a European frankness of outlook with a “Continental” charm that, as Marans tells it, could usefully offset Hay’s sometimes blunt manner with the risky Society’s potential recruits.
The group’s risks went beyond its commitment to a sexual preference then deemed illegal everywhere. Hay, like other co-founders of the Society, was a believing Communist; his bluntness came partly from the Party’s “proletarian” view of gentility as a tool of capitalism. And American Communism, after World War II, had become a prime target of public hostility, government persecution, and blacklisting; in 1950, the Smith Act made it illegal.
Marans, understandably eager not to burden his audience with pedantic strings of facts, often errs the other way, diving for the dramatic core of his scenes while withholding the data that would put them in context. Communist “cells” had always maintained a secrecy which the Mattachine Society’s founders duplicated. When the Society’s support helped one member, Dale Jennings (Sam Breslin Wright), get acquitted after an entrapment-based LAPD arrest for “indecent behavior,” membership boomed; the increased numbers brought increased anxiety over Mattachine’s secrecy and its CP links. In 1953, Hay and his fellow founders with Party ties were publicly removed from the Society’s leadership. Gernreich, whose public career had necessitated keeping his involvement concealed, withdrew around the same time from both the Society and Hay’s love life.
The Temperamentals presents their breakup as a setback for both love and gay rights. In fraught, tender scenes, Marans depicts Rudi and Harry as a same-sex Romeo and Juliet, tragically driven apart by an unyielding world. Meantime, the Mattachine Society, an epilogue tells us, dwindled, after Hay’s ouster, into “a frivolous social organization.” Facts tell a different story on both counts. However intense Hay and Gernreich’s affair was, a decade later, Hay met John Burnside, with whom he would spend the four remaining decades of his life. Together, some years after Stonewall, Hay co-founded with Burnside his second significant gay organization, the Radical Faeries.
And though the Mattachine Society faltered, splintered, and lost membership after shifting from radical activism to a more mainstream-friendly campaign for social tolerance, it did not turn trivial, persisting in the effort to combat police persecution and educate public opinion. (It also expanded its gender horizons, giving early support to the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis.) Knowing it was there probably saved the lives of a good many gay men who, in 1953, were too frightened, or not yet angry enough, to support Hay’s brand of protest.
Marans’s free hand with facts gives his play a jittery, incomplete quality, which, in some respects, heightens its power; its fragmented blips of event carry an intense urgency, echoed in Jonathan Silverstein’s forceful bare-stage production, which is occasionally crude but always effective. His leads, cunningly cast, echo their characters’ relationship: The coarse-grained Ryan tends to sledgehammer his points; Urie, a genuine charmer, always seems to be saving the situation with his more nuanced playing. Wright, Tom Beckett, and Matthew Schneck do well in multiple supporting roles.
All the acting in Sheryl Kaller’s driven, rapid-fire production of Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall (Naked Angels/Peter Jay Sharp Theatre) likewise conveys a fraught quality, which Nauffts’s script encourages, powerfully but sometimes injudiciously. Here, historical memory seems to be layered onto a contemporary situation: Luke (Patrick Heusinger) and Adam (Patrick Breen) have lived together for four years. Luke, a fundamentalist Christian, conceals the relationship from his parents (Cotter Smith and Connie Ray) and still prays for forgiveness after sex. When a car crash puts Luke in a coma, Adam, in the ICU waiting room, has to contend with both Luke’s clueless folks and his own perplexity about faith.
Arresting but not wholly convincing in the present—would you spend four years with someone who thinks your life together is evil?—Nauffts’s setup evokes the gradual, painful coming-out of gays in the post-Stonewall era, especially the anguish of the plague years, when numberless AIDS-ward vigils merged with legally unprotected same-sex unions to produce a torrent of such acrimonious scenes: gay men bodily ejected from their dying lover’s hospital rooms, or coming home from the memorial service to find their belongings dumped in the hall and the locks changed on the apartment door. The young don’t know these stories, which need to be told.
In this regard, Next Fall, with its quick-sketch characters and its mixture of topics half touched on, marks, like The Temperamentals, only the beginning of a long process of retelling, dramatizing, and sorting fact and memory together in meaningful ways. That is history’s terrible paradox: The past is always there, but we are always only at the beginning.