There is reason to be concerned that a didactic drama will be too, er, didactic, but John Marans' "The Temperamentals" explores the early history of the gay rights movement with a generally winning blend of pathos and humor.
It helps that the play's many scenes are short and breezy rather than long and preachy. Audiences for the Rep Stage production will be entertained while receiving a history lesson.
That history is centered around a single person, Harry Hay, who founded a pioneering organization in the 1950s, the Mattachine Society, which was named after a secretive society from the Renaissance. Hay and several other founding members also referred to themselves as Temperamentals.
The secrecy and coded language are understandable when you consider the cultural context of Cold War-era America. Besides being a homosexual, Hay had been a Communist. Anybody on a witch hunt in the '50s would have hit the jackpot by outing him. The significant thing about Hay, though, was that he decided to out himself through open meetings and court cases that ultimately appealed to the court of public opinion. It was a gutsy move during such a buttoned down period.
Hay's status as the organizational anchor for the Mattachine Society translates in theatrical terms to a performance by Nigel Reed that stresses his determination to speak his mind and willingly face the consequences. Although Hay as a stage character verges on having a colorless personality, his stubborn integrity comes across thanks to Reed's disciplined acting.
Hay's younger boyfriend, Rudi Gernreich, more than makes up for Hay's emotional reserve. An Austrian Jewish fashion designer who fled the Nazi takeover of his country, Gernreich is trying to establish himself within the Hollywood studio system. His borderline-flamboyant personality actually makes him a pretty good fit for the temperamental movie scene in Los Angeles, but even there he's warned to keep his private life under the radar.
Alexander Strain's lively performance as Gernreich brings much-appreciated nervous energy to the production directed by Kasi Campbell. Whether arguing with Hay about their relationship or arguing with other designers about their fashion sensibility, this quick-witted character is fun to watch.
The other founding members of the nascent Mattachine group are Chuck Rowland (Vaughn Irving), Bob Hull (Rick Hammerly) and Dale Jennings (Brandon McCoy). They often disagree among themselves as to the extent to which their initially quasi-secret society should go public; and the playwright supplies just enough biographical details about these real-life figures to offer insights into what life was like for them at the time.
Although Nigel Reed only portrays Harry Hay for the duration of this 2009 play, the other actors are constantly changing costumes as they portray their main characters and also an array of secondary characters both male and female. The most famous of these additional characters is movie director Vincente Minnelli, who was the ex-husband of Judy Garland. If you like to eavesdrop on people dishing Hollywood gossip, this play will have you leaning closer to hear every anecdote.
The multiple characters and scenes ensure that "The Temperamentals" remains moving both physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, there are occasional scenes where there's only so much that can be done by moving chairs around at yet another organizational meeting. Hang in there, because within minutes there will be a comic zinger or a dramatic outburst.
For all their activism, the Mattachine members still belong to a conformist, Eisenhower-era generation. Their wardrobe adheres to the look of that gray flannel suit-defined decade.
It's likewise suitable that JD Madsen's gray-hued set design is defined by a second-level platform reached by a metal staircase that would not be out of place in a prison. That's why the conservatively dressed characters nearly blend into the monochromatic backdrop. This deliberately dull space implicitly serves as a reminder that the next generation of activists would become more colorful in the 1960s and '70s.
"The Temperamentals" runs through Sept. 16 in the Studio Theatre in Howard Community College's Horowitz Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $15- 40, with discounts for seniors, students, military and HCC faculty and staff. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.