NEW YORK CITY: On Sunday, July 31, Unnatural Acts will complete an incredible run at Classic Stage Company (CSC) where this exemplary show has been extended three times. Most Off-Broadway shows in New York City announce a limited run when they open. If it were not for the amazing audience demand and CSC’s nimble ability to re-jigger its summer schedule, it would have been quite impossible for the rest of us to still catch this Off-Broadway show, about a 1920’s-era secret investigation and witch hunt of so-called “inverts” and “homosexualists” at Harvard University. There is still a little time. If you’ve heard about this excellent play but aren’t completely sold on seeing it, don’t even bother reading past this paragraph.
Seriously, now: drop everything (including your beach plans) and go.
What amazes me about Unnatural Acts is that it packs a powerful punch, even though the shameful campus events it chronicles took place 91 years ago and even though its source material (the Harvard Archives) had already been mined in a similar work, Stan Richardson’s Veritas at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival. Unnatural Acts is not the first play out the gate but in many respects it is infinitely better.
According to one report, Tony Speciale, who conceived and directed Unnatural Acts, had briefly collaborated with Richardson until the two men had a falling out. Whatever the case, Veritas relied too heavily on the historical accuracy of research, which meant the drama, though quite special in its own right, kept getting mired in the repetitive minutiae of the interrogations. By contrast, Unnatural Acts cuts right to the chase by beginning and ending with the suicide that precipitates the ugly and hysterical purge of gay male students, a secret trial that was conducted by Harvard University administrators of the 1920s and that was suppressed for more than 80 years. A Harvard sophomore, Amit R. Paley, came across a reference to a “Secret Court” in the university archives, which led him in 2002 to exposing the files that had been kept from public scrutiny in the Harvard Crimson.
Vividly and imaginatively, Unnatural Acts theatricalizes what emerged from the research to deliver a deeply distributing docudrama. Written by a mostly male ensemble of actors and dramaturgs (they call themselves Plastic Theatre), the play works effectively as a vivid group portrait of what gay life was like before the 1960s gay liberation movement. It is thrilling as a meta-theatrical assemblage. It compels us to chew over how far social and political attitudes today have changed (or, in certain respects, not changed), particularly in terms of the persecution of individuals on the basis of sexual orientation.
Unnatural Acts has been widely reported on and written about. It makes no sense to rehash its plot in numbing detail. Suffice it to say that, as Paley detailed in the Harvard Crimson, the investigation began after the suicide in May 1920 of a gay undergraduate named Cyril Wilcox at his family’s home in Fall River. Letters from friends that arrive for Wilcox around the time of his death set off an inquiry, and later a tribunal, when his brother, a Harvard alumnus, opened and read them.
These letters were very incriminating. Suspecting that the letter writers were homosexual, Wilcox’s brother passed them on to university administrators whom he pressured to act. Although members of the outside community in Cambridge were also implicated in the scandal, the clandestine tribunal, presided over by Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, chose as its target Perkins 28, the dorm room of a congressman’s son named Ernest Roberts, an over-privileged brat who frequently hosted (sometimes in women’s clothes) wild parties attended by a small group of gay men, mostly sophomores who positively reveled and caroused in the idea of sexual debaucheries. Performed in front of Walt Spangler‘s looming expressionistic set, dominated by a crowded bookcase that enfolds (impossibly enough) a large fireplace, Unnatural Acts dramatizes the fallout of the investigation, which concluded in June 1920 with the death of a second student, Eugene Cummings, Cyril Wilcox’s boyhood friend. The first act of the play marks the descent, and the second act chronicles a terrible unraveling — how the group of young men dissembled and fell apart under homophobic pressure.
“Dramatize” is the key verb in that previous paragraph. The handwritten records of the secret tribunal that were uncovered at the Harvard library are notes rather than transcripts, and so this cleverly structured drama takes the form of fictionalized dramatic scenes, even as it leans on documentary-style narration to lend these scenes a modernist context or to provide suitable transitions. Thrillingly, the CSC production extrapolates on the hard facts of the investigation itself and then pivots breathtakingly on the ensemble’s collective embellishment of the relationships of the students, and their hopes and dreams, their betrayals and paranoia, and the swiftly inevitable fallout. In a profound way, Unnatural Acts dramatizes the venality of human nature. Devastatingly, it indicts not just the Harvard administrators, who are portrayed anyway as a mass of shadowy figures in the background. The play comes down very hard on the group of callow young men and weasely cowards who viciously turn against one other as soon as Perkins Hall is discovered to be a hotbed of homosexuality.
“Everyone knew what was going on in there, but no one knew what it call it,” intones one character in the play. The solemnity of such narrated remarks, bolstered by the non-naturalistic moments of physical theatre, beautifully collides with the luridness implicit in our wanting to crash into those raucous parties and witness exactly what happened in those infamous Harvard dorm rooms. To summon up the period environment and place it in proper contemporary perspective, Speciale is especially good at evoking the sober moves of noirish melodrama, which often cast gay and lesbian characters in a negative light. At the same time, the director and his cast members are very consciously plastic about their aesthetic intentions. The play never lets us forget the great distance between how homosexuality is deemed today and how homosexuality was deemed in the past. The shock value rests not so much in the gay revelations but in the increasingly abhorrent behavior of almost everyone involved in the scandal. As much as we might want to revel in the boy-will-be-boys hedonism depicted, the collage-like structure of Unnatural Acts insists on the critical distance between the actors and the spectators. In fact, the post-modern urgency of this devised drama depends on that distancing effect, without which the secret scandal it re-tells would only come across to us today as an anomalous bleep in Harvard history.
Act Two of Unnatural Acts persuasively makes a meta-theatrical case for why the Harvard secret trials matters to those of us who take for granted the visibility of gays and lesbians in U.S. society. Unfortunately, the play suffers in one important respect. Although in Act One several characters shine memorably by virtue of the actors’ expressive gifts, the script frequently does not delve deeply enough to clearly differentiate or to fully characterize or to follow through the assorted young men in the circle of Harvard friends. At best, the script sketches them, thus allowing the excellent actors to invest such utter and often brilliant commitment to bring off their parts. Sometimes they almost convince us that they are tackling meatier roles, when in fact a majority of them are mere outlines of real people or are stock characters. For instance, Nick Westrate, as the reckless Ernest Roberts, the ringleader of the wild parties in the dorm room, is a genius at making a meal out of a hugely unsympathetic and well-nigh enigmatic part.
Frank De Julio and Joe Curnutte chime together beautifully as a romantically entangled couple as, respectively, Keith Smerage, an aspiring actor, and Nathaniel Wollf, the adoring senior. Because they are given a lovestruck scene where Wollf mentors the sweet Smerage on how to perform a monologue from Shakespeare‘s Anthony and Cleopatra, both De Julio and Smerage stand out as actors. But the script never makes us feel the emotional depths of their suffering when the macho senior eventually sells out the sensitive actor. Similarly, Roe Hartrampf possesses both the physical splendor and expressive gifts to transcend the limitations the script puts on his basically functional character, Kenneth Day, a hunky track star who finds that he enjoys the occasional blowjob and being the apple of every guy’s eyes in the showers. Day is riveting when he cracks under pressure, but it feels strange how the plot simply dispatches him soon after he confronts the tribunal.
In Act One, there is a memorable party scene which takes place toward the end of the term in Roberts’s dorm room; this set piece is stunningly staged and exuberantly acted. Desire and the promise of sexual consummation swiftly sour, twisting and turning into fear, accusations and recriminations when each student is later called in one by one and grilled by the administrators who ask remarkably blunt questions (such as “Do you masturbate?”). This party scene is a genuine high point of Unnatural Acts. Yet it could also have been scripted so that, amid the boozy noise and Victrola music, several less colorful or more periphery characters could emerge as flesh-and-blood individuals in their own right.
Of course, the play’s larger point is the unsavoriness of these guys’ alcohol-induced one-upmanship and testosterone-fueled shenanigans. In Act Two, Max Jenkins shines when his character, the staunch Stanley Gilkey, cleverly portrays himself as not-homosexual. Gilkey argues that he attended the parties merely as a researcher of “the homosexualist”; slyly, he presents himself a kind of anthropologist who must hang out in the forest with the apes so that he may successfully pursue a career in criminology. It’s a wonderfully canny scene. But since Gilkey hasn’t been depicted as anything other than the boisterous jerk, the most traction that Jenkins is able to chew on as an actor is to elicit big laughs when, facing the tribunal, he repeatedly struggles to not cross his legs.
Nevertheless, despite these quibbles, Unnatural Acts is strongly acted, convincingly costumed (by Andrea Lauer), strikingly lit (by Justin Townsend) and exquisitely orchestrated (by Speciale). In Act Two, the play reaches a climax with a final impassioned speech delivered by the narrator Eugene Cummings (portrayed by Brad Koed) and punctuated by the troupe of actors executing a ballet of choreographed movements. That set piece will leave you speechless. The impressive artifice of it produces an incisive kind of theatrical fireworks, different from the rest of the evening.
This inspired ballet of manhood demonstrates a collective plea for courage, hope and future understanding. And it is all the more dramatically commanding when we realize that here, in this one bravura sequence, these young gay men whose lives have come apart before us are — for once — acting together as one: as a courageous political unit — something they never were in real life. For a brief shining moment in the theatre, the ghosts of these scared men perform the political agency that was ruthlessly denied them 91 years ago. Embattled figures, they are not just victims protesting against violence, suicide and homophobia. Neither are they Harvard-bred dandies, deviants or so-called perverts to be loathed or ridiculed. Here — in this one dream of triumph in Unnatural Acts — these closeted boys reconstruct, reclaim and reveal the full force of what it means to be true Harvard men.
By members of the Plastic Theatre.
Conceived and Directed by Tony Speciale.
The cast features Jess Burkle, Joe Curnutte, Frank De Julio, Roe Hartrampf, Roderick Hill, Max Jenkins, Brad Koed, Jerry Marsini, Devin Norik, Will Rogers and Nick Westrate.
Set design is by Walt Spangler, lighting by Justin Townsend, costumes by Andrea Lauer and original music and sound design by Christian Frederickson.
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Opened June 14, 2011. Closing July 31, 2011. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.
Tickets are $60 for weekday performances and $65 for weekends.
For tickets and information, visit www.classicstage.org or call (866) 811-4111, or (212) 352-3101, or visit the CSC box office at 136 East 13th Street, Monday through Friday 12 pm to 6 pm.
Reviewed by Randy Gener on July 20, 2011.