Monday, August 1, 2011

Unnatural Acts

I am grateful to my adopted home, Massachusetts, for stepping up and becoming the first to stop denying equal marriage rights. Does that perhaps help redeem this Puritan state for what happened at Harvard University almost a century earlier? In what controversial Harvard President Larry Summers later called "abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university," the school convened the Secret Court of 1920 to rout out a group of young men who were engaging in what it deemed to be unhealthy behavior--mainly "unnatural" (homosexual) acts, but also drinking (this was at the beginning of Prohibition). The investigation and expulsions ruined many lives, including those of men not officially a part of the university.

Director Tony Speciale, who is also Classic Stage's associate artistic director, cowrote Unnatural Acts with several of the show's actors. They extrapolated from real Secret Court testimony to give voice to those who were expelled from Harvard and even kicked out of Cambridge entirely. The roll call at the end of the play telling what became of each man is certainly trite, but it's heartbreaking nonetheless.

While they act the hell out the material, the very talented cast is sometimes distractingly old for their roles. And for this play, looking the part very much matters. The audience's horror at the administration bullying a vulnerable teenage student is lessened when the actor looks (in some cases quite a bit) over 25. Having a younger-looking cast would go a long way in connecting with LGBTQ youth seeing the show, and it would better display the power dynamic between the panel of elders sitting in judgment over each young man brought in all alone to defend himself. That said, everyone on stage (especially Nick Westrate as the wild Ernest Roberts and Jerry Marsini as the buttoned-down Donald Clark) is very talented, immersed in his character, and completely engaging.

Ultimately, the show is better acted, designed, and directed than it is written, which is a bit strange as the director is also its coauthor. The play suffers a bit from its modern sensibility and an occasionally jarring mix of period and contemporary speech (and attitudes). And yet, none of that got in the way of my enjoyment of the play, which is manipulative and never subtle in its approach to the material. But the play is irrepressibly charming, and I just couldn't make myself mind its foibles too much. The characters (and, I suppose, the actors and even the play itself) are so earnest that it's impossible not to love them and want them to succeed, so I ultimately forgive any shortcomings. With some tweaks (ok, even without them), this play could resurrect itself elsewhere off-Broadway (with the same set as designed by Walt Spangler and costuming by Andrea Lauer, I hope). In any case, Unnatural Acts should have a long and healthy life in regional productions, and I'd very gladly see another production--preferably with the choreographed movement at the end less obviously cribbed from Spring Awakening.

(Although there is a bit of lovely singing and--previously mentioned unoriginal moment aside--interesting choreographed movement, Unnatural Acts is not a musical. However, there has been a musical, Veritas, written about the Secret Court. I'm a bit sad I didn't get to see Theo Stockman in drag in Veritas--and in a part where, I assume, he might not have had the CRAZY EYES.)

For the real story on which Unnatural Acts is based, check out the original articles from Harvard's student newspaper, The Crimson. With the recent spate of suicides among LGBTQ youth, this historical tale is as relevant as ever. And since the show is clearly advocating a point of view, it would be nice if they would either scale that back or instead fully commit by making available literature (and perhaps even collecting donations) for community resources like the It Gets Better campaign and Trevor Project hotline (866-488-7386).

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