“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE TEMPERAMENTALS and LEVITTOWN.

Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals, at the Barrow Group Theatre, has become something of a sleeper hit. Apparently, it opened up as a showcase and then Daryl Roth swooped in and funded an open-ended extension. I was finally able to see it, and it knocked me out. It’s a beautifully-written, superbly acted and directed look at a forgotten moment in the history of our country. Great plays tell stories that needed to be told. This one’s a doozy.

Back in the day when gay people had to stay firmly locked up in the closet, they developed a code, sort of a secret language with which they could communicate with each other. A common euphemism for “gay” was “temperamental.” This is a play about what it meant to be “temperamental,” when that could get you beaten up or even thrown in jail. It tells the story of two courageous men, a teacher named Harry Hay and a young Austrian fashion designer named Rudi Gernreich (who later became famous in the 1960’s as a top mod designer and the creator of the notorious topless swim suit) who, in the late 1940’s-early 1950’s founded the first gay rights organization. That their efforts to change our laws and public consciousness about homosexuality fizzled out does not denigrate their courage.

An intrepid cast of six men play many different roles, though Thomas Jay Ryan (as Hay) and Michael Urie (as Gernreich) play their characters throughout. The effect is as if you are seeing a large cast play, and Jonathan Silverstein’s direction here is stunning. All the actors are wonderful, but Ryan and Urie really score as the two leads.

Whether you’re temperamental or not, don’t miss this one.

I also enjoyed Marc Palmieri’s drama Levittown, at Theatre at St. Clements. This is a compelling dysfunctional family drama (haven’t seen one of those in a while) set in the locale of cookie-cutter homes on Long Island and focuses on three generations of a troubled family. Son Kevin has dropped out of college and come home, not knowing what his next step in his life will be. His Mom is a new-age whacko, but the good news is his sister Colleen, ever the family black sheep, seems to have pulled her life together and is planning to get married. Kevin thinks that now is the time for a reconciliation between Colleen and their father, who left his family years ago. Dear old Dad, it turns out, is a deeply troubled man who simply cannot forgive Colleen for the angst she put him through, and Kevin’s good intentions almost pave the road to hell.

There’s nothing much that’s new here, but Palmieri has a strong empathy for his characters (even the horrible father) and George Demas’ direction is very subtle and very strong. The actors are uniformly terrific. I particularly enjoyed Tristan Colton as Kevin, and Susan Bennett as Colleen. The real standouts in the cast, though, are Curzon Dobell as the Dad, Dane Knell as crusty old Gramps and, above all, Tyler Pierce, who plays two roles and who absolutely bowled me over. What a terrific actor!

If you’re a “downtown theatre” aficionado, this one ain’t for you; but if you like plays with strong stories and compelling characters which are firmly grounded in the real world, check this one out.

THE TEMPERAMENTALS. Barrow Group Theatre.312 W. 36th St.
TICKETS: www.smartix.com. 212-868-4444
LEVITTOWN. Theatre at St. Clements. 423 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: 212-352-3101