THE TEMPRAMENTALS at New Conservatory a lesson in Gay History

L to R: Steven Salzman,Jeffrey Hoffman, Seth Thygesen and J. Conrad Frank in the regional premiere of Jon Marans' "The Temperamentals" at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema

THE TEMPERMENTALS by Jon Marans. Directed by F. Allen Sawyer. New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC), Walker Theatre, located at 25 Van Ness Ave. near Market St. in San Francisco. (415) 861-8972, or online at

November 4, 2011 - December 18, 2011

Ten to 15 years before the Stonewall Riots earned a rightful page in gay history, a group of gays in Los Angeles formed the Mattachine Society. That secret Society was the first organization to champion gay rights and they braved public approbation and police prosecution. The driving force behind Jon Marans’ semibiographical play The Temperamentals is an attempt to give historical significance to that seminal gay event. Sadly it is being given a spirit but lack luster west coast premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC).

It was during the 1950s that Harry Hay (Steven Salzman) started organizing the Mattachine Society. At that time prosecution of communists and homosexuals (the “gay” designation was not yet in vogue) by the McCarthy inquisition was in full swing. The code word for the gay members was “temperamentals.” Secrecy was imperative and Harry Hay, an avowed communist, planned the meetings and wrote the by-laws in complete secrecy, as they did in the communists cells. The first to be initiated was his new Viennese lover Rudy Gernreich (J. Conrad Frank) a talented Jewish designer who had escaped from Nazi Europe.

The play is written with 25 or more short scenes with characters and significant incidents introduced as the star crossed love affair of the protagonists unfolds. One of the more notable characters is Vincent Minnelli who exemplifies the concept that there is no dichotomy between being both gay and married. The difficulty of recruitment plays a major role in the story line and many of the original conscripts were communists.

The personal inner and external turmoil of the members has all the potential for drama, especially the 1952 trial and acquittal of Dale Jennings (Seth Thygesen) a young recruit entrapped in a Los Angeles police sting in a public urinal. The director F. Allen Swyer wastes a great opportunity to make those scenes convincing.

So it is with the entire play and it just not click although the historical events are informatively fascinating. To jazz up the evening Ravel’s bolero is played between scenes and there must be significance attached to that conceit, but it is obscure. The entire cast that also includes Justin Gillman and Jeffrey Hoffman all play multiple roles and all give it their best. Salzman as Harry Hay starts out strong but his conversion to an Oscar Wilde type personality after divorcing his wife does not ring true. J. Conrad Frank gives the best performance when he is playing Rudi Gernreich but seems out of place with his minor roles.

Toward the end of the two hours with intermission running time there is a rousing song that will remind you of Nelson Eddy singing “Give Me Some Men” (who are stout hearted etc.) from the 1940 movie New Moon.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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