The poster for the Rep Stage’s new production of Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals unambiguously apes the Mad Men color scheme, font, and artwork. The publicity materials describe the play as “Mad Men meets Milk.” Mad Men red is a bold accent in the set and furniture. Clearly, this is a Mad Men-themed Temperamentals. It is an interesting choice for a play set mostly a decade earlier than Mad Men, in LA as opposed to New York, with no ad people in it, and, most important, all about the first flickerings of gay politics (Mad Men being mostly preoccupied with straight experiences and themes). The Common element already existing in the play that arguably allies it with Mad Men is the theme of double lives in bygone times, regular-looking gray flannel-suited exteriors concealing complex, unruly, flaming red ids inside.
It’s a nice conceit, but probably superfluous. There’s nothing this superimposed theme brings to the play that this 2010 Drama Desk Award play doesn’t already have. There is even a two-colors metaphor (polished versus raw stone) already in the show. This docu-drama about the men who created the Mattachine Society, probably the second American organization to advance what Justice Scalia would later sneeringly dub “the so-called homosexual agenda,” says plenty about the conflicts between regular-looking exteriors and the ids inside – which is to say, for these characters at least, the closet. But the closet is a much more destructive and differently driven place than the hotel rooms where Don Draper has his hetero hookups. Don Draper’s double-life sort of works; the double-lives that Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, and their colleagues struggle with are killing them. And unlike Draper, who seldom seeks to understand himself or explain, the need to identify their natures and thoughts, and to act upon them, drives the men of The Temperamentals.
It can fairly be said that what motivates Harry Hay (Nigel Reed) is at least as much the need to understand and explain himself as it sexual desire. When playwright Marans first presents him to us, he is a married man sneaking out on his wife for a furtive rendezvous with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Alexander Strain). Almost everyone in this world is married (for instance director Vincente Minelli, amusingly portrayed by Vaughn Irving) or, like Gernreich, willing to go out on public dates with women to camouflage his real social life. Few of them can visualize, even to themselves, what it would be like to regard the gay halves of their lives as normal, continuous, and public. (In fairness I should point out here that the question whether the historical Minelli was actually gay or even bisexual at all remains open.)
But Hay, in a wonkish way, persists in attempting manifestos, petitions, think pieces on what he and his friends are and how they should be treated and viewed, by others and by themselves. At one point early in the play, Hay expostulates that gays are not “broken heterosexuals,” in an era when that was exactly the way psychotherapy treated them and even their friends, even they themselves, regarded homosexuals. There is nothing, he comes to feel, that should prevent gays from asserting that they are unbroken, from living openly, yet leaving the closet is almost unimaginable for most of his mates. Even the Mattachine Society is organized like a Communist cell, there are no photos at meetings, and the telephone is hidden under a pillow, lest it be bugged. It is not only an era of considerable pecknsiffery, but McCarthy time, and the Mattachine members are terrified. The play does a good job of showing how the LA homosexual underground was thoroughly intertwined with the Communist Party, meaning that its members had two separate unmaskings to fear.