Newly formed Celebration Theatre presents the Houston premiere of an important moment in the movement for gay rights, the founding of the Mattachine Society, an underground activist group that began in Los Angeles in the '50s. The story is told through a series of brief scenes, conveying a cinematic sense and permitting humor as well as drama.
The title, we are told, is a code word used to describe homosexuals. Harry Hay (Steven Bullitt) is the driving force behind the founding of the Mattachine Society, joined by his lover Rudi Gernreich (Mitchell Greco), Viennese-born designer of fabrics and, later, women's fashions. They're joined by Chuck Rowland (John Dunn) and Bob Hall (Rob Flebbe) as the third and fourth founders, and the fifth important character is Dale Jennings (Jeff Dorman), a defendant who won an important case involving false entrapment. The last three actors also portray many other characters in brief cameos, and play them to a fare-thee-well, savoring the variety, and opportunity for humor. They enrich the play considerably, for playwright Jon Marans has been so concerned with recording the uphill struggle, and conveying the prejudicial climate of the time, that he has made Hay and Gernreich less than fully three-dimensional.
Though Michael Urie won the Lucille Lortel Award for best lead actor for his portrayal of Gernreich in NYC, suggesting there may be sparks buried in the character, Greco gives instead a thoughtful interpretation of Gernreich as an outsider, being Viennese-born and even an outsider to the Society, with deep and abiding conflicts between his career and his activism. Greco has demonstrated considerable charm and remarkable ebullience in several recent roles in musicals, but his work here, though nuanced and intelligent, is subdued and understated, as though he, or the director, has too much reverence for the subject matter.
Bullitt captures the driving force and the dedication of Hay, and is articulate, but tends to rely upon shifts in volume to generate varying intentions, rather than intonation. My assumption, perhaps wrong, is that the real-life Hay must have had considerable charisma to have accomplished what he did, but neither the script nor the acting provides much evidence of this -- one problem with a docudrama is that it can be so busy conveying information that it neglects to convey the humanity.
The staging by director Jimmy Phillips is highly effective, and he forges a cohesive whole from the series of brief episodes, molding them seamlessly into a vivid portrait of the times. The play is at its best in the first act, as plans and friendships are formed, and the four founders bond. The second act opens with a surprising event, an amateur ballet, which is simultaneously highly amusing and embarrassingly bad, like watching the Ballet Trockadero on an off-night. This is the playwright's intention, I hasten to add, and the actors dutifully give him what he wants. And the narrative veers off into some tangential areas in this act, including Hay's growing fondness for flamboyant shawls, simply because that is what actually happened.
John Dunn also plays Vincente Minnelli, famed film director and husband to Judy Garland, and Dunn uses stance, walk and vocal shifts to create an indelible character. Jeff Dorman, one of Houston's most versatile and gifted actors, sews up the blue-collar role of Dale, and is invariably interesting in a number of cameo roles. As is Rob Flebbe, who apparently can change personalities as quickly as he can change a jacket, and does both with poise, aplomb and good nature.
The lighting design by Matthew Albrecht is varied and appropriate, and does a lot to keep the pace fresh and the action moving. The overall production is graceful and stylish, and makes wise use of Barnevelder's ample stage, though I suspect the intimate drama might play even better in a smaller venue, except for that ballet -- I wonder...no, forget I even thought it. Celebration Theatre merits praise for bringing this work to Houston, as does its Artistic Director Ron Jones for selecting the work for Celebration's premiere production.
Rich humor enlivens a docudrama about the early days of the struggle for gay rights, and skilled acting brings the period to vivid life, making it well worth seeing for its entertainment value alone.
The Temperamentals continues through February 11, presented by Celebration Theatre at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex, 2201 Preston St. For information or ticketing, call 832-303-4758 or visit online celebrationtheatrehouston.com.
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