June 25, 2011
"Unnatural Acts" Mourns a Past Injustice
The first time I heard about Harvard’s attempt to purge the school of gay men in 1920 was five years ago when someone sent me a copy of “Harvard’s Secret Court,” William Wright’s book about the witch hunt. The second was last year, when Veritas, Stan Richardson’s stage version of the story, played the New York International Fringe Festival, selling out before the festival opened and before I could get a ticket to see it. Now comes Unnatural Acts, another play conceived by the Plastic Theatre group that opened on Thursday at Classic Stage Company.
I’m not surprised by all the attention this tragic incident has drawn. It’s a compelling story. After a student committed suicide, his family discovered letters from his classmates revealing the secrets of gay life on campus. They turned them over to the administration. A secret tribunal was convened, the young man's friends were summoned, interrogated and pushed, as always happens in these cases, to name names. Some reluctantly did. A few managed to dissemble. Many lives were ruined.
Then, the whole affair was hushed up and the files locked away until 2002, when an enterprising reporter for the student paper spotted a reference to the files in the school archives, pushed the administration to make them public and, with the help of his fellow reporters, pieced together the complete story. (Click here to read how he did it.)
Unnatural Acts was pieced together through further research and improvisation by Plastic company members under the leadership of Tony Speciale, who directed the show. They’ve used a variety of increasingly popular coups de theatre to bring their version of the story to the stage (click here to read about their process).
The 500 documents in the secret files have been mined, just as the Tectonic Theater Project used the transcripts from Oscar Wilde’s trials for that company’s 1997 play Gross Indecency. Cast members sit along the sides of the stage when they’re not performing in the same way the actors did in the recent musical The Scottsboro Boys. Choreographed dance movements, reminiscent of the ones in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, are used to express the inner turmoil of the characters.
Some of the fancy stagecraft works. The overlapping speeches that some characters give during a testimony scene neatly underscore the double lives the young men are forced to lead.
Some of it doesn’t. The expressionistic choreography seems out of step with the naturalistic tone of the rest of the play. A party scene goes on way too long, possibly because the actors were having such a great time improvising it that they forgot how much less fun it can be to have to watch someone else’s bacchanalia.
Still, the 11-member cast is amiable in every other way. Unlike so many ensemble pieces in which it becomes difficult to tell one character from the other, each of the men here emerges as a distinct person.
Each actor also gets his turn in the spotlight with a dramatic speech. The ones who make the most of those moments are Nick Westrate as the leader of the group and Max Jenkins as its most shrewd member. A brief full-frontal nude scene makes the buff Roe Hartrampf memorable in a different way.
The show’s technical values are first rate too. Walt Spangler’s spare set is elegantly efficient. Justin Townsend’s lighting subtly directs the eye exactly where it needs to be. And Andrea Lauer’s costumes are so stylishly beguiling that I couldn’t help wishing that men still dressed that way.
And yet, as I told my theatergoing buddy Bill, himself a Harvard grad albeit of much later vintage, I felt that an opportunity had been missed. What I wanted was poetry (a musing on how and why such a thing could happen) but what I got was a documentary (a recounting of what happened—and, in at least one instance, a sloppy telling of that: one of the men talks about dating a Sarah Lawrence girl; as a proud grad of that school, I appreciate the shout-out but Sarah Lawrence didn’t open until six years later.)
Still, you should see Unnatural Acts before it closes on July 10. What Harvard did in 1920 is shameful. An epilogue that reveals what happened to each of the men is affective testament to that. And despite whatever nitpicks I may have, the entire play is a valuable reminder of a past that must never be repeated.
We may finally have legalized same-sex marriage in New York and Gay Pride week is about to be celebrated all over the country but the wrongheaded values that drove Harvard to persecute its gay students aren’t as outdated as we might like to think, as is demonstrated by a recent case in Arkansas in which a local newspaper cut the name of a dead man’s surviving male partner out of the obituary. It's difficult to imagine what could be more unnatural than that.