Harvard University has its share of shameful secrets -- one is the basis of the play Unnatural Acts, now at the Classic Stage Company. It addresses the Secret Court of 1920, which expelled 10 Harvard men -- eight students, a recent grad and an assistant professor -- charged with homosexuality.
The moving play opens with the suicide of Cyril Wilcox, an undergrad from Fall River, Mass. Anonymous letters recording his sexual activities at Harvard reached the university, which accused Wilcox's friends of "degeneracy." Harvard, in turn, conducted a closed-door witch-hunt of anyone attending parties in Perkins 28, the door room of Earnest Roberts, a Congressman's son, and close friend of Wilcox.
Written by the Plastic Theatre and conceived by Tony Speciale, the drama examines the affection the gay men shared and their struggles with sexuality. There are some extremely tender moments; the romance between Nathaniael Wollf (Joe Curnutte) and Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio) is touching. It's hard not to sympathize; these men found each other in an era when homosexuality was taboo.
To its credit, Unnatural Acts makes each man distinct; some, like ringleader Roberts (Nick Westrate) feel protected by privilege; others, like athlete Kenneth Day (a nuanced Roe Hartrampf) are both sexually conflicted and alone. By contrast, Day's flamboyant roommate Edward Say (Jess Burkle) has some of the best lines in the production. All, however, are at the mercy of a punishing administration, which sought to destroy most of the students rather than help them.
The acting is first-rate, despite an occasional directorial lapse. The sets and lighting capture Harvard's elite atmosphere and its darker side. Unnatural Acts, based on court transcripts and letters, recreates both the excesses of youth and the abuse of power. It would have been helpful to place the era in context; though clearly moral grandstanding and invasions of privacy, given the recent expulsion of Anthony Weiner from Congress, haven't gone out of style.