Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Powerhouse of a Story - "Unnatural Acts"

By Judd Hollander

One of the most riveting plays to hit the stage this young 2011-2012 season is the fascinating Unnatural Acts, written by members of the Plastic Theatre, conceived by Tony Speciale and presented at Classic Stage Company.

Set on the campus of Harvard University in May of 1920 the play, based on fact, unearths a story that was kept secret for more than 80 years. That being a "secret court" as undertaken by the Harvard administration, peripherally to investigate the suicide of a former student, one Cyril Wilcox, but in actuality an attempt to purge the University of any homosexual influence, both in regards to students and faculty members.

Entangled in the investigation are nine students, all young men on the cusp of adulthood, with prospective future in athletics, law, acting, etc., many of whom share secrets they would do anything to keep hidden.

The chief focus of the investigation is Ernest Roberts (Nick Westrate), a somewhat spoiled congressman's son known for throwing wild parties in his dorm room, with alcohol flowing freely (this was during the Prohibition era) and where various sexual proclivities were also thought to occur. At least some in authority knew about these gatherings and turned a blind eye to the situation, but when Cyril's suicide becomes public knowledge, even though there are those who insist it was an accident, and certain incriminating evidence finds its way into faculty hands, events are set in motion which becomes impossible to stop.

Rather than simply showing an out-and-out bias against homosexuality, the play goes much deeper, painting a detailed look at not only the era depicted, but also the stage of life these young men find themselves when the world starts crashing down around them. College life, then and now, is a time for experimentation and beginning to find one's own way; insulated to a great degree from the pressures and responsibilities of the outside world. As such, these men feel free to embrace their feelings and emotions in a way they could not do so elsewhere. This is never more evident than during Roberts's final party where the students in question are having the time of their lives just being themselves. The fact that the audience knows what's coming, even though the characters don't yet, adds an extra layer of poignancy to the scene.

Also fascinating is how this wonderfully structured and directed production, (great work by Speciale, who also handles the directing chores) goes from being a museum piece in the beginning, with characters that are identically dressed and almost interchangeable, to feeling fresh and immediate with the inhabitants completely distinct individuals by the time it's all over. Such as with Kenneth Day (Roe Hartrampf), whose dream of competing in the Olympics may be denied; or Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed), who fears his family will found out about what he's done, in a time where "family means everything;" or Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers) a shy young man who may be more guilty by association than anything else-at least in his own mind-and so on.

 The "court" scenes are terribly intimidating, the sequences staged to keep those sitting in judgment in deep shadow while shining a harsh spotlight on those on the "hot seat". Anyone who has ever been called in for questioning can certainly relate to the stomach-churning fear these moments bring out. Yet the trials themselves are not given nearly as much weight at their effects on the participants; the student's mostly jovial attitudes quickly becoming one of "every man for himself," and where friends and lovers quickly turn on one another. Some saying the truth as they see it and others trying to say as little as they can in order to hopefully emerge unscathed. A rather interesting sequence in this regard is where students Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio) and Nathaniel Wollf (Joe Curnutte) testify side by side (albeit at different points in time) with each man's answers basically contradicting the other.

An especially nice touch was the decision to mix in various bits of humor throughout the story, providing a much-needed bit of levity before plunging on to the next point of drama. Once such case in point is when Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins) is facing the court and claming not to be a homosexual, while at the same time desperately trying to stop himself from unconsciously making what may be considered effeminate gestures and thus giving himself away.

The acting is uniformly excellent. There is no one real star here, but all of the participants have pivotal moments in the story. Hartrampf is great as Day, a boy who wants nothing more that to get to the Olympics and who, like many others, tries to deny what he's feeling inside. Westrate is good as the somewhat smarmy Roberts, who delights at thumbing his nose at society, not caring what anyone else thinks or who he hurts. De Julio strikes a powerful note as Smerage, an aspiring actor brought down by one who professes to love him, while Koed has an absolutely dynamite scene as Cummings, one of the few who believes he can put an end to what's happening, only to find out that sometimes hatred and denial is too strong a weapon to overcome. Roderick Hill has a short but pivotal scene as Wilcox's bother and Jerry Marsini strikes the right note as a teacher who catches the eye of Gilkey and whose adult perspective on the same issues affecting the students offers a nice counterbalance to the younger men's reactions.

Speciale's direction, as mentioned above, is spot-on, creating a seamless blending of the insulated sphere of college life with the world of reality while making the entire process look completely effortless. Also quite good is the way the play ties up many of the loose ends after the events depicted, showing what did or didn't happen with many of those involved.

If the best thing theatre can do is teach while it tells a story, Unnatural Acts does exactly that, pulling into the light of day a long-buried incident and holding it up to the world for all to see. Great job on this one-go see it if you can.

Unnatural Acts
Written by Members of the Plastic Theatre
Conceived by Tony Speciale
Set Design: Walk Spangler
Costume Design: Andrea Lauer
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Original Music and Sound Design: Christian Frederickson
Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Production Manager: Production Core
Marketing: HRC Marketing
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Tony Speciale

Featuring: Brad Koed (Eugene Cummings), Roe Hartrampf (Kenneth Day), Nick Westrate (Ernest Roberts), Jess Burkle (Edward Say), Will Rogers (Joseph Lumbard), Jerry Marsini (Donald Clark), Max Jenkins (Stanley Gilkey), Frank De Julio (Keith Smerage), Roderick Hill (Lester Wilcox), Devin Norik (Harold Saxton), Joe Curnutte (Nathaniel Wolff)

Assistant Stage Manager: Courtney James

Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street

Tickets: 212-352-3101 or

Closes: July 17, 2011

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