Reviewed by: Sandi Durell
The story is real and it happened at Harvard in 1920. It was a witch-hunt and interrogation of promising young men labeled homosexuals, the majority of their lives ruined by this inquisition.
The file surrounding this investigation was tucked away and labeled “The Secret Court,” covered up until 2002 when Amit Paley, a student journalist for The Harvard Crimson, stumbled upon it at the university archives. Harvard wasn’t immediately forthcoming, but eventually granted access to the files of over 500 pages. What Mr. Paley uncovered was an ongoing persecution of students who were suspected and charged with homosexual activity.
This turbulent play at Classic Stage Company unveils the love, betrayals and systematic
discriminatory bullying that ensued after one of the men, Cyril, (whom we don’t see) commits suicide by turning on the gas at home. It is referred to as Cyril’s “accident.” The incident is the catalyst to Harvard administrators’ harassment as they pit friend against friend, student against teacher, lover against lover after discovering an explicit letter.
The library stage setting allows for the tables, chairs and couch to be easily moved to create the various scenes, including two beds on the outer edges assimilating the men’s dorm rooms so the audience and cast, who sit at the perimeter of the stage, can voyeuristically watch the action that ensues. The scenic design is the brain-child of Walt Spangler.
The eleven men that make up the brilliant cast, are a amalgamation of various prototypes. Ernest Roberts (Nick Westrate) gives a strong performance as the arrogant son of a congressman who knows the score, yet flaunts in the face of danger. He is the student who wrote the letter to his lover Cyril. His room is the gathering place where the outrageous parties take place in Perkins Hall. Young thespian Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio) is being tutored by the head of the drama group Nathaniel Wollf (Joe Curnutte) in more than Shakespeare as they come to express their desires; Edward Say (Jess Burkle), is the most outwardly gay of the group, as he secretly applies rouge to his cheeks from a silver compact; Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins) makes a play for Assistant Professor, philosophy teacher Donald Clark (Jerry Marsini), as they discuss Socrates and banned literature, Sexual Inversion, endeavoring to expose hidden appetites. Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed), who grew up with the deceased Cyril, seems overly concerned about not staining his family name, but his encounters become more explicit as the plot unfolds.
It is only Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers) who, because of his friendship with these men, and sharing a room with one of them, is implicated and accused although he is not involved in any homosexual activities. Guilty by association? Cyril’s brother Lester Wilcox (Roderick Hill), is the surprise element and more involved than meets the eye as his role is unveiled in Act II.
Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins) is adorably funny in the party scene in Roberts’ room, dressed in tuxedo and a wild grey wig, alongside Roberts, who is dressed as a woman, as they engage in the Gilkey Production of sexual antics. Harold Saxton (Devin Norik), an alumnus and tutor, is an honorary resident at Perkins and is defined by a monologue, a letter from Cyril signed Salome’s Child.
When they all realize the severity of the outcome of this witch-hunt, Roberts’ advice is: “If you admit you have a problem, they will help you hide it. If you fight Harvard, only one of you is coming back with scars. Renounce your sins, they issue a probationary measure—maybe some doctor’s examination—they formulate an excuse for withdrawal you can tell your parents, and soon it’s as though nothing ever happened.”
These men are frightened of being expelled, losing their careers and having their families told who they are; so much so, that they do whatever is necessary to protect themselves. In this case, lie and blame each other.
The script, written by members of the Plastic Theatre, is conceived and brilliantly directed by Tony Speciale. Quick dialogue questions and answers, passes between individual students and other cast members who act as the Court interrogating them. A unique, choreographed scene where the men pick up their chairs, slam them down, each speaking phrases with physical gestures from their interrogation scenes, is akin to a beautiful cacophony and dance sequence. The performances are amazingly engaging throughout.
If you thought “The Normal Heart” was awesome, you’ll find this play absolutely riveting in its realities and conception.
“Unnatural Acts” can be seen for a limited engagement thru July 10th at CSC, 136 East 13th Street, NYC.