Oscar E Moore

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Unnatural Acts – Harvard Cover-Up at Classic Stage Company

June 24th, 2011 by Oscar E Moore

Prediction:  You will not see a better written, better acted or better directed production this year than that of “UNNATURAL ACTS” – a new play based on some hard to digest true events – which is now at the Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street.  They have created a profoundly moving, passionate, emotionally draining and powerful classic of and for our times. 

Harvard University should be ashamed – destroying the lives of these men.  Men who were homosexual.  And then keeping all records of Harvard’s Secret Court 1920,  locked up, in the closet so to speak, for over eighty years   Young men living their lives as normally as they could – pretending during the day, confused, suppressing what was for them their natural urges (unnatural to others) but coming to life at night allowed to revel in their true selves in Room 28 at Perkins Hall under the guidance of Ernest Roberts (Nick Westrate) the “on probation” prone son of a Congressman who hosts his soirees in drag.

Had it not been for Amit Paley who inadvertently discovered the files while a student at Harvard in 2002 and fought to get the secretive and sensitive material released from the University whose motto is “Veritas”, “UNNATURAL ACTS” would never have been written by the members of the Plastic Theatre as conceived by Tony Speciale who has staged this complex play beautifully reminiscent of Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

Despicable deeds done by five administrators investigating the alleged despicable deeds done by “a nest of deviants” who were interrogated, exposed and destroyed.  Then covered up – all in the name of truth.  “UNNATURAL ACTS” brings this brutal story to extraordinary life.

A story that won’t go away as noted in recent headlines regarding the suicide of Tyler Clementi after his roommate broadcast images of him having sex with another man on the internet. 

It is the “accidental” death of Cyril Wilcox and some correspondence that sparks the narrative by Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed) that begins the fast spiraling downfall of the students in question where they ultimately turn against each other – having to name names.

Kenneth Day (Roe Hartrampf) the handsome “jock” who likes to be serviced to “relax”.  The debater, Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers) not gay but interested.  The flamboyant Edward Say (Jess Burkle) a wit who likes a bit of rouge.  Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins) head of the Drama Club.  The actor Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio) being helped with his diction and audition piece from Antony and Cleopatra – “All is Lost” (which beautifully mirrors the love and betrayal and trust themes of the play) by Nathaniel Wollf (Joe Curnutte).  The professor, Donald Clark (Jerry Marsini) who secretly writes poetry frequently referencing Eros and Devin Norik as Harold Saxton who figures prominently in this drama of indecency sparked by the suicide of Cyril after being threatened to be labeled a homosexual and denounced by his brother Lester (Roderick Hill).

Jess Burkle, Roe Hartrampf & Will Rogers

Jess Burkle, Roe Hartrampf & Will Rogers

The acting is exceptional from the ensemble of eleven men who sometimes say more with a prolonged look, a glance or a subtle gesture – like almost crossing his legs but then thinking better of it as it might incriminate him as being feminine. 

Tony Speciale has directed with sensitivity, wit and wild simulated sexual abandon.  Overlapping dialogue has never been more appealing – especially the Act II duet interrogation scene of unlikely roommates Lumbard and Say.  The appearance of Room 28 is a marvel.  The majestic bookcase stage center with chairs and small pieces of furniture around the stage as actors move about in the shadows is handsomely designed by Walt Spangler.  Period costumes by Andrea Lauer, expert lighting by Justin Townsend and original music and sound design by Christian Frederickson couldn’t be better.

“UNNATURAL ACTS” is an incredibly creative, theatrical, truthful and moving production with an unexpected turn of events and coda that will sadden and shock.  It is not to be missed.  Through July 10th

www.classicstage.org  Photo:  Joan Marcus

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  • 1 Matt Jayes Jul 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks for this recommendation, Oscar. It was all you said it would be. I need to side on the right side (usuallythe worst seat) next time.