The trouble with Harry Hay, as Stuart Timmons titled his biography of the gay-rights pioneer, was an aggravated sense of fairness. It propelled him toward unpopular causes where he fought (what was in his worldview) the good fight with extreme prejudice and pit-bull tenacity.
His shining hour lasted three years (1950–53). Along with his lover (Viennese-gone-Hollywood designer Rudi Gernreich), another couple (Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland) and a Los Angeles friend (Dale Jennings), Hay founded the first gay rights organization in the United States — the Mattachine Society — almost 20 years before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 turned his dream into a universally accepted reality.
This is the often overlooked, if not forgotten, story that Jon Marans has chosen to dramatize in his new play, The Temperamentals, which moved uptown into New World Stages on the strength of some startlingly good notices in a tiny Off-Off-Broadway venue last year.
The playwright himself admits he backed into the material when the San Jose Rep asked him to write the book for a musical based on Studs Terkel's "Coming of Age," a book of interviews with political activists and anarchists. Harry Hay's name came up in a chapter called "The Others," and Marans decided to toss him into his musical stew for spice as a recurring character. "Each time he came onto the stage, he absolutely stole the show," Marans remembers. "At first I couldn't figure it out. Then I realized there were two reasons: One was that he was joyously unapologetic about who he was — even today, I find this astounding — and the other thing was he had a philosophy and an outlook people had never seen before. That just fascinated them the minute he stepped out."
From that eye-opening intro, Marans started pursuing Hay like a newfound friend. "Besides talking to people, reading things, Googling all over the place, there's obviously an enormous amount of research that I did. But research is a tricky thing: you know so much you gotta be careful, because you can't put it all in."
Backing off a bit from a facts-first stance, he has fashioned a history lesson with a heartbeat. "That's really what, at its core, it is — a love story," Marans readily admits.
The personal relationship in the center ring took some stunning body blows from those repressive times. A card-carrying Communist, Hay was hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Indeed, because of concerns for secrecy and their leftist ideology, the Mattachine Society founders adopted the cell organization of the Communist Party — which, in the Red-baiting '50s, was emphatically not the way to go.) Gernreich finally had to put career over activism and leave a different kind of historical mark — as a fashion designer.
Michael Urie, who plays Gernreich, is pleased with the way the role has evolved in the six years since he did a reading of it. "As a supporting actor, I rarely get to play parts with such amazing arcs," he says, pausing a moment to see if "supporting" was the word he wanted. "I think he [Gernreich] is the leading lady, actually — but he changes so much from the beginning to the end. At the beginning, Rudi is very out-there, very forward-thinking, open to activism and not afraid to be affectionate with other men, but by the end he realizes this could affect his career — ironically, in the fashion world — and ultimately he leaves his activism by the wayside. As his lover breaks out of his shell, Rudi goes back into his."
In the role of Hay, Thomas Jay Ryan — as Variety said — "gives the piece an unexpected gravitas and urgency." Much of this comes from the homework he did for the role. "There's a great book called 'The Trouble with Harry Hay,' which is the primary source book," he notes.
"We sold it in the lobby the last time, and we probably will again. It's a great overview of his life, and then there is everything he wrote. He wrote these manifestos. If you really want to know Harry, look at what he said about himself."
Arnie Burton, Matthew Schneck and Sam Breslin Wright complete the Mattachine Society founding-fathers portrait, as well as take on six or seven other roles that weave around Hay and Gernreich — a piece of cake for a multitasking master like Burton, who just did two-and-half years of playing 75 roles in The 39 Steps.
"It's so different," he contends. "I have to say this is much harder. It's a serious play and deals with serious subject matter, so the tools you use in 39 Steps — big, broad choices — you can't get away with here. You have to look for smaller ways to make the difference. It requires more brain-work to find those little things."