Monday, June 27, 2011

Unnatural Acts

Only for approximately the past twenty years has gay history been seriously brought to light. For most of the twentieth century the subject has been kept hidden in the great hope that by not talking about homosexuality it would disappear. However, recent historians have unearthed hidden boxes of files, letters and diaries that give a surprisingly modern picture of gay life before the gay liberation movement sparked by the Stonewall riots in 1969. There were, in certain circles, such as the male dominated universities, big cities, and war time events, underground communities of gay men who were open with each other and able to express their true selves to a point. Such files regarding Harvard University were explored as recently as 2002 with the result of a very interesting play now running at the Classic Stage Company called Unnatural Acts. The play was written by the members of the Plastic Theatre and was conceived and directed by Tony Speciale. Several members are also cast in the play.

Staged in the three quarter thrust with a large fireplace and bookshelves as a collegiate backdrop, the various places of Harvard are handled with the simple shifting of lights and select pieces of furniture. The all male cast of the play are dressed in the dapper fashion of 1920 and play both the key student characters as well as faculty and officials as needed. Occasionally, documentary style narration is delivered to lend the scenes of historical fiction a context and provide transitions, but most of the material is handled in the form of dramatic scenes establishing the nature of the gay subculture and the events leading up to their discovery by officials due to an investigation of one sudent’s suicide.

All the characters are nicely drawn with a clear individuality. They each exist in various levels of comfort regarding the acting out of their nature. All seem able to camp it up at a party among friends, but intimacy takes on different degrees of courage and guilt. The result of Harvard’s discovery that a hotbed of homosexuality existed among the student body caused the eviction of the men involved not only from the college, but from the town of Cambridge. For the most part their lives were a struggle from that point on and two others committed suicide as a result. As easy as it is to view these events as long ago and far away, especially in light of New York having just passed a same sex marriage law, it is important to note that a good portion of America would still like to see homosexuality suppressed and outlawed as if it could be extinguished. Even as a three part article about the Harvard secret files was featured in the college’s own newspaper, a student of Harvard wrote a letter to the editor saying that the school should take a stronger position on the preservation of morality. It seems that even some intelligent students of Harvard today do not have a fundamental understanding of the phenomenon of homosexuality and fear it enough to feel that it ought to be regulated. We have come a long way and yet there is a long way to go. This play can only help in furthering that education.

The pity of a small play like this, regardless of its excellence, is that only so many people will see it in this Off Broadway run. It will need many more productions in many more cities and particularly a film version for it to do any good politically. The play does have the feel of Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty about it, though that play actually played to its Depression era audience right at the time the message needed to be voiced. Had Unnatural Acts appeared on the New York stage in 1920 the final speech calling out for justice and tolerance would have really been revolutionary. Still, the message is not lost on today’s audience. On the basis of simply being told a story, the play succeeds in setting up good sympathetic characters, balancing natural comedy with a serious situation and creating genuine suspense.

The play contains a generous eleven characters for Off Broadway and the cast is terrific––one and all. Brad Koed plays Eugene Cummings, the chief narrator of the crowd and is able to layer his expository speeches with emotion. Roe Hartrampf as Kenneth Day, the athlete of the group, must work though a slightly gratuitous nude scene, but has the physique for the job and handles his several serious and delicate scenes articulately. Max Jenkins as Stanley Gilkey is particularly entertaining as the boisterous one of the group and handles his scene of questioning by the court with a clever balance of humor and pathos. Frank De Julio is particularly good as Keith Smerage, an aspiring actor rehearsing for a part in the Dramatic Society’s production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and delivers a key speech about betrayal beautifully in counterpoint to a moment in the story dealing with the same subject. The balance of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Nick Westrate, Jess Burkle, Will Rogers, Jerry Marsini, Roderick Hill, Devin Norit and Joe Curnutte making up the best ensemble of actors going right now.

Now through July 10th.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, I couldn't agree with you more. This story needs to be told on a much larger scale.

    Your positive review gives this play the exposure it deeply deserves.

    Closed societies throughout history have found was to hide social injustice against gay men. The truth is out there, and it needs to be heard.