Saturday, July 16, 2011

theatre review - UNNATURAL ACTS, Off Broadway, July 14

"If it occurs in nature, how can it be unnatural?" is the key line of dialogue in the new play Unnatural Acts running Off Broadway at Classic Stage Company until July 24th.  That line doesn't occur until late in the second act, but it is the one question that every character is asking themselves throughout the play, as you see they are all victims of an extensive homosexual witch hunt set in 1920's Harvard. 

Based on true events, Unnatural Acts is a fairly well crafted and directed production that delivers on most of what it sets out to do.  The true story behind the play is that in 1920 a Harvard student committed suicide and an investigation into his death was held by a five man team who questioned the group of men who were associated with him.  These men, including the student who killed himself, often frequented parties in a dorm room on campus where "unnatural" things were believed to be happening.  These undercover interview sessions spiraled into an elaborate witch hunt into the intimate natures of those relationships, with the panel using fear to pressure the men to name names and ultimately expose them and expel those involved.   The notes from this investigation were filed away and not discovered until eighty years later when a student reporter stumbled upon a reference to "Secret Court" - the name Harvard administrators gave to these interrogations.  Further research and petitioning for the papers to be released resulted in that student, Amit Paley, writing an article for the Harvard student paper that got national attention into this dark spot in Harvard's past.  Director Tony Speciale read one of the articles about this story and with a team of writers from The Plastic Theatre researched the events and recreated the timeline into the investigation and also discovered what happened to the students after they were expelled.  Speciale and his team crafted Unnatural Acts from this extensive research and three of those who wrote it also appear in this production.

The play is an interesting look into homophobia and fear and what a university does to protect itself, even if it means the ultimate doom for many people.  With dialogue that is extremely well written and consistent (something I was concerned about since this is a play written by a group of people) and characters that aren't stereotypes but are well fleshed out, Unnatural Acts ultimately proves to be an effective look back at how fear and intimidation can unravel close relationships and how anyone can get accused of something that they should never have been accused of to begin with.   While the main action of the play is something that would rarely happen today, it is still an interesting lesson for us to learn from since homophobia and people who try to tell other's what is "natural" and what isn't (gay marriage, anyone?) is obviously still prominent today.

Jess Burkle, Roe Hartrampf and Will Rogers

There is not a weak link in this ensemble.   Everyone gets at least a moment or two to shine.  My favorites were Jess Burkle who plays the slightly more "fey" member of the group, Nick Westrate, the congressman's son who feels no shame in being who he truly is and provides the venue, his dorm room, for the parties where most of the "unnatural acts" begin, Roe Hartrampf who is the "jock" who finds himself drawn to the men he sees go into that Perkins Hall dorm room, Will Rogers as the "straight" man who eventually finds himself an attendee at the parties that Westrate's character throws but mainly for the friendship the people there give him and Max Jenkins who is the one "villain" in the group who does what he needs to do to take care of his best interests.  I also liked Joe Curnette and Frank De Julio as the one "couple" of the group.  We see their relationship begin in a sweet way as well as the ultimate betrayal and doom that the "secret court" investigations thrust upon it.  The two of them perfectly capture young love as well as fear and sadness.  Burkle and Curnette are two of the three writers who also appear in the show.

Joe Curnutte, Frank DeJulio, Will Rogers, Max Jenkins
and Jess Burkle
Speciale provides many effective theatrical flourishes including having the accused men take turns as the interrogators,  and a well choreographed bit where the men act out their fears and nervousness in unison that then quickly spirals out of control.    Justin Townsend provides an excellent lighting design that evokes the fear of the investigations and beautiful costumes by Andrea Lauer and a simple but effective set design by Walt Spangler perfectly set the period for the production.   My only complaint would be that the CSC space is a thrust venue with just about as many people seated on the sides of the acting space as in front of it and Speciale directs 50% of this production as if there was no one on the side with the action delivered face forward.  During many important moments, especially in act one, people on the sides of the stage see either the side or complete back of an actor as he delivers his lines.   Speciale somewhat redeems himself as the other 50% of the play uses more movement where scenes are delivered to the entire auditorium but considering that Speciale is the Associate Artistic Director of CSC and has directed several productions there before, you would think he would know better then to possibly alienate those who are on the sides.

Nick Westrate and the cast
As anyone who went to college knows, the four years you spend getting your degree aren't just about going to class and learning from your professors, but they are also years when you are able to find out who you are, grow as an individual, truly be yourself, party a little too hard and build relationships that will most likely last for the rest of your life.  The students at the center of Unnatural Acts are doing all of those things but end up being punished for their actions.   If you can't make it to CSC to see this production before it closes next week that is too bad, though I do believe this play will have a nice life in regional theatres.

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