If the word "educational" had not been tainted as faint praise, we could celebrate "The Temperamentals" as an object lesson in educational theater. If the word "important" didn't sound so grandiose, it might be a lovely fit for a description of Jon Marans' entertaining play, which has moved to a commercial Off-Broadway run at New World Stages after a successful summer downtown.
But the piece - an eye-opening chunk of forgotten gay political history from the pre-Stonewall '50s - wears its significance with offhand grace and an altogether endearing yet unsentimental heart. At the center are married Communist activist Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) and budding fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie), clandestine lovers in Hollywood who co-founded the short-lived but daring gay-rights group called the Mattachines. Temperamental is a code word for gay.
Presented on a black-stucco stage with a few chairs, Jonathan Silverstein's simple (but impeccably dressed) production manages to tell a straightforward story with emotional lushness. The excellent cast includes Arnie Burton, Matt Schneck and Sam Breslin Wright as several increasingly unpredictable characters. Marans writes short scenes in a deceptively formal, occasionally clunky style that combines elements of docudrama, savvy context and ascending flights of bittersweet fabulousness.
No holds Bard
'Equivocation" is a sort-of history play, a what if . . . ? construct that imagines Shakespeare's reaction to royal pressure to write an anti-Catholic propaganda drama. Playwright Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest and founder of the Boston Shakespeare Company, obviously knows both territories. What he wants to say, however, gets lost in an ambitious but scattered comedy of tricked-up form and high-minded gibberish.
Director Garry Hynes keeps the sensibilities jumping effectively throughout the modern-but-Elizabethan plays-within-plays-within-plays, the rapid-fire discourse on English political and religious history, the idealism and cynicism within Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the grisly torture of conspirators of the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1606.
If that were not more than plenty, Shakespeare - here called Shag and played with amiable blandness by the usually terrific John Pankow - is also grappling with guilt about his dysfunctional family, especially his ignored daughter (the radiantly no-nonsense Charlotte Parry). David Pittu, Michael Countryman, Remy Auberjonois and David Furr do quick-change miracles with assorted characters. The title refers to a treatise on how to speak the truth in difficult times. Clarity could help.
WHAT "The Temperamentals"
WHERE NewWorld Stages, 340 W. 50th St., Manhattan
INFO $65; 212-239-6200; telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Illuminating history
INFO $75; 212-581-1212; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Lively but high-minded gibberish