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Great Performances: The Temperamentals and Venus in Fur

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Great Performances: <em>The Temperamentals</em> and <em>Venus in Fur</em>

The Temperamentals could have easily been the title for The Boys in the Band, given that the latter’s party guests fit that description to a T, and it’s interesting that both works are sharing the same season. Both are about a group of men who, despite their differences, try to make sense of what it is to be gay in their society. Except that this play, sensitively written by Jon Marans (Old Wicked Songs), goes back all the way to the early ’50s, when gay wasn’t even a state of mind yet. Cue the advent of the Mattachine Society, a politically based platform begun by married, somewhat conservative Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan), slowly embracing his homosexuality, and his Jewish émigré lover Rudi Gernreich (Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie), and their difficult efforts trying to get a group together to create a faction for men who felt disenfranchised (calling themselves “temperamental”), much like black Americans did in the same time period.

Despite its historical nature, The Temperamentals is anything but a dry history lesson; it has almost as many quips as Mart Crowley’s play mentioned above, and even lets its quintet of performers go the drag route at times. Directed with economy by Jonathan Silverstein (with what has to be some kind of nod to Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Project), it’s a breezy evening that always has its heart in the right place, which makes up for inelegant stretches of writing (for example, when women finally appear in the piece—still played by the men—they seem much more shrill than the obviously beloved characters we’ve seen up to that point. The acting is also tremendously engaging: Urie, despite leaning on some of his TV background for effect at times, is as charming and handsome as Gernreich is often described (he became a hugely famous fashion designer years later), Matthew Schneck, Arnie Burton, and Sam Breslin Wright add depth as the remainder of the Mattachine group, and Ryan—a crafty, intelligent performer whether on stage or film—finds a wondrous way to underplay a man going through self-identification turmoil. Harry Hay is a role that I can imagine scores of actors would attack like a dog gnarling on a big piece of juicy steak, but it would never have been half as endearing as Ryan makes the guy.

And speaking of a role to sink one’s teeth into, the female lead in David Ives’s cheeky, kinky Venus in Fur provides enough audition material for half a life in the theater. It’s got physical humor, wanton yet cunning vulgarity, juicy period thesping, and even some saucy S&M dress-up. And any young actress will want to seize it ASAP. But I don’t think they’ll ever approach the electrifying high-wire act that Nina Arianda, a 2009 NYU grad, makes of it. From the moment she blasts through the door of an audition room (ironically enough) to sell her talent to the passionate young playwright-director (Wes Bentley, still quite charismatic) wanting to adapt the erotic 1870 novel Venus in Fur, she grabs the viewer like a fierce dominatrix grabbing a client’s balls. Part Donna Murphy, part Barbra Streisand in her comedienne days (even saying “Hello, gorgeous!” at one point), and part—dare I say it?—Meryl Streep, Arianda gives one of those you-had-to-be-there performances you rarely see anymore. The rumor mill has it that this production may hit Broadway in the near future, and while Walter Bobbie’s skillfully directed production may suffer transferring to the bigs (its intimacy is a big asset), it would be a damn shame not to let the world discover this dame too.

The Temperamentals is now playing at New World Stages (340 West 50th St.) in New York City and has an open-ended run. Schedule: Mon, Thu-Sat at 8pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm and 7pm. Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, one intermission;Venus in Fur is now playing at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th St. at 3rd Ave.) in New York City and continues until March 28. Schedule varies. Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission.