Every so often an idea or a story pops up that captivates the imagination of multiple people all at once and they all decide to make art about it. At the moment there are three projects about Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society either in production or in development and it will be interesting to see how each one approaches the subject matter.
Currently playing at the Barrow Group Theater is Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals, the first of these projects to hit the stages. Originally scheduled to end its run in (I think) June, it has extended through the summer and has been playing to sold-out, largely rapturous audiences – and its understandable. The Temperamentals is a solid, if predictable and somewhat formulaic account of this fascinating story. Marans’ delivers an admirably cogent script, suggesting the complexities of Hay’s life – and the origins and demise of “first mattachine” – while adhering to a clear, efficient narrative. Framing the story largely in the context of Hay’s relationship with Rudi Gernreich, Marans recounts the facts through exposition, moving the story forward with certainty. The direction is strong – the staging clean and straightorward with few embellishments – a few moments of direct address, a flirtation with audience participation – that give the production an overall feeling of professionalism and polish. And the actors, to a man, do an admirable job of making an extensive cast of characters clear and easy to follow. The audience related quite well with the narrative of Harry as hero and the doomed romantic arc. And on the one hand, it is impressive that the rather complex relationships between both the people – and the confluence of events of the time – are so neatly streamlined and simplified. The Temperamentals is good, well-done, reliable, mainstream theater telling a clearly narrative version of an extremely complicated story. Its a successful production and a great night in the theater for the midtown crowd. It is not, however, the sort of challenging, complicated work that the story would seem to demand or that I was hoping for.
The next Mattachine show on the horizon is The Mattachine Project which bills itself as “a devised theater piece exploring the origins of modern homosexuality and gay liberation by focusing on the much-overlooked history of Harry Hay and the inception of the Mattachine Society from 1948-1953.” Work-in-progress excerpts from this project will be shown at Dixon Place on July 27 (7pm) and 28 (8pm) as part of the Hot! Festival. (Full disclosure, I’m producing this). Directed by Stephen Brackett and written by Dan Fishback, in collaboration with an ensemble of actors that includes Chris Andersson, Satya Bhabha, Yuval Boim, Sean Donovan and Philip Taratula, the creative process has been fascinating. Dramaturg Ken Nielsen has added an enormous amount of insight and research into everything from Magnus Hirschfeld to the Cultural Front to modern queer representations in media. Even though I’m involved in it, it is too early to say what exactly its going to be. That’s the whole point of “experimental” theater – and we’ve been exploring quite a bit. It is challenging trying to create a multi-layered, non-narrative piece around a specific moment in history. We’ll see what we have, though everything might well change. Come check it out and stay for Q&A after.
And finally, New York Theater Workshop has commissioned a Mattachine piece from rising star writer Alex Lewin which is still in development as well. I know even less about that – only that I have heard they are approaching the story from a very unique and unexpected angle. I don’t even know when it will see the light of day, though friends that went to an early reading say “all signs point to yes.”
Harry Hay was incredibly complicated, the origins of Mattachine are obscure and frequently contested, and the time itself (Los Angeles 1948-1953) was a fascinating, contradictory moment in American history. There is certainly room for three productions – it’ll be interesting to see how each one plays out and all the different ways people relate to this story.