Unnatural Acts

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    June 1, 2011

    Review by Tulis McCall

    The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name is throwing a clambake over at Classic Stage Company, and the invitation is open. It’s a swell party, indeed.

    In this production, that I could swear had a showing at last year's Fringe Festival, the dirty little secret that Harvard kept under lock and key (and I suspect there are other institutions of higher learning that did pretty much the same thing) is not only revealed, it is laid out like a bad Bridge hand, one card at a time.

    In 1920, one Cyril Wilcox left Harvard to return to his home in Fall River. There he committed suicide. He dressed in a full suit, turned on the gas in his room, lay day down on his bed and waited. His brother, Lester (Harvard Class of 1914) found him the next morning. Wilcox was gay, which, back in 1920 was right up there with being an ax murderer - perhaps worse! He had an idea that the administration was on to him and his fellow fellows. He was an innocent in many ways, without the bravado of someone like Ernest Roberts (Nick Westrate), the son of a Congressman, who had been in trouble so many times he was out of fingers to count on. Roberts was the occupant of Perkins 28 at Harvard, the dorm room where "things" went on about which no one spoke. For starters, there was liquor – this was the era of prohibition – and for another there was a noticeable lack of female companionship. Perkins 28 was where the gay boys let down their hair, and the Devil was invited to pay the consequences.

    The consequences, it turns out, were about to become severe. Cyril, although not a strong person in life, was about to become monumental in death. Following his passing, Harvard began an investigation. What were the circumstances surrounding Wilcox's demise? Who were his friends at Harvard, and what were they up to? One by one, the students were called in to an interrogation by an administrative committee. They had no recourse. They had no defense. They had no rights. So, one by one, they turned on each other. It wasn't personal; it was survival. Unnatural Acts takes us through the revelry, camaraderie, the daring covert behavior, the accusations, the judgment, the despair, rage and indignation of these students and their fall from grace. These men ranged from the extremely flamboyant Eugene Say (Jesse Burkle) to the leader of the guy gang Ernest Roberts, to the bumbling future Federal Judge Joe Lumbard (Will Rogers), whose philosophy could best be described as live and let live, unless of course push came to shove. In the group was also the future first Director of Lincoln Center, Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins). Most, however, didn't fare so very well. They died unknown or lonely or at their own hand. The stain of dismissal from Harvard followed them for the rest of their lives.

    Under the guidance of Tony Speciale, The Plastic Theater has created a play that is crisp, fluid and engaging. It is as though their research was turned like spring earth into a garden, from which these young men sprouted fully formed. Oddly enough, it is Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed) as the narrator who has the weakest role to inhabit. In comparison to the other characters, whose needs are clear, it is not until the final moments of the play that Cummings appears to have something at stake. This puts a strain on the otherwise well crafted text.

    All in all, this is another in the list of events on our National Wall of Shame, told with courage, clarity, strength and attention to detail, right down to the scuffmarks on the parquet floor. Unnatural Acts reminds us that love cannot be legislated, no matter how many ways we try, and it has ever been thus. The New York State Senate and Obama's evolving viewpoint notwithstanding! Ditto the Pope!

    (Tulis McCall)

    "Often has the aroma of a ripe, lurid melodrama"
    Ben Brantley for the New York Times

    "Smart new play, .., .. in a bracing production."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for the New York Daily News

    "Informative and often touching, but it also leaves you wanting."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for the New York Post

    "Powerful polemic that only occasionally becomes overwrough."
    Jeremy Gerard for the Bloomberg

    "Immensely moving coup de théâtre"
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "Theatrically uneven but always absorbing."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "The stunning theatricality of this ensemble production, .., suggests that it could travel beyond its core constituency in a commercial transfer ."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

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