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Unnatural Acts

Classic Stage Company's new play about a frightening and shameful chapter in Harvard University's history has a tremendous emotional impact.

By New York City
Jess Burkle, Roe Hartrampf, and Will Rogers
in Unnatural Acts
(© Joan Marcus)
Jess Burkle, Roe Hartrampf, and Will Rogers
in Unnatural Acts
(© Joan Marcus)
Theatergoers get a glimpse into a frightening and shameful chapter in Harvard University's history in Unnatural Acts, now playing at Classic Stage Company. And while the script, co-authored by some members of the ensemble, along with director Tony Speciale, has its uneven moments, the stylish production has a tremendous emotional impact.

Based on actual events of the 1920s, the show focuses on the fallout from Harvard student Cyril Wilcox's suicide. After this young man's death, letters revealed that he had been part of a cadre of gay men, and the Harvard administration, hoping to avoid embarrassment, proceeded to track down and expel his companions in what amounted to an early 20th-century witch hunt.

The episodic play takes theatergoers squarely into the rarified environs of the school (elegantly indicated in Walt Spangler's spare scenic design) and introduces 11 of Cyril's surviving friends, who range from Ernest Roberts (Nick Westrate), a congressman's son who hosts gay bacchanals in his dorm room, to Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio), a transfer student from Tufts who feels like an outsider because of his less-than-exceptional background. There's something appealing about all of the men, their affection for one another, and the ways in which they struggle with their identity at a time when homosexuality was a societal taboo.

Once the correspondence has come to light, the administration demands that they name names, destroying both close-knit and tenuous relationships as well as reputations. Impressively, Justin Townsend's exquisitely conceived lighting design visually underscores both the men's cohesion and isolation throughout even as Andrea Lauer's tasteful period costume design indicates both conformity and individuality.

It's a harrowing series of events to witness, and the sheer emotional pull of the material mitigates weaker aspects of the script, such as the awkwardly integrated character of Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed), a hometown friend of Cyril's who serves as the show's narrator. Similarly, given the intensity of the subject matter, some of the more stylized moments in Speciale's staging -- particularly a sequence in which the men physicalize their emotions in unison only to break apart into individualized movements -- feel extraneous.

Conversely, there's nothing unnecessary or untoward about the performances in the show, all of which are movingly effective. There are numerous standouts including Westrate's chameleon-like turn as Ernest and Jess Burkle's rendering of his flamboyantly fey best friend Edward. Roe Hartrampf provides an exceptionally nuanced turn as Kenneth, an athlete who's living in denial of his gayness even as he acts on it, and Will Rogers' performance as Joe, Edward's roommate -- who might in today's parlance be considered "bi/curious" -- is a marvel of understated simplicity and good nature.

The most heartbreaking performances come from De Julio and Joe Curnutte, who plays Nathaniel, an upperclassman who's serving as a mentor for Keith in the school's drama club. Their work together early on is so endearing that it makes a later betrayal feel all the more painful. If there's a villain among the students, it's self-serving Stanley Gilkey, and in Max Jenkins' shrewd performance, he's a character who proves dislikable yet curiously worthy of empathy as he charts his own course through the quagmire of Harvard's -- and his own -- homophobia.


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