'Unnatural Acts'

"Unnatural Acts" is a natural for gay auds, who should be riveted by the story behind the real-life scandal in which the suicide of a Harvard student in 1920 led to the unmasking of a clandestine group of homosexual students.

“Unnatural Acts” is a natural for gay auds, who should be riveted by the story behind the “Secret Court,” a real-life scandal in which the suicide of a Harvard student in 1920 led to the unmasking (and eventual expulsion) of a clandestine group of homosexual students. But the stunning theatricality of this ensemble production, created by members of the Plastic Theater collective that performs it here, suggests that it could travel beyond its core constituency in a commercial transfer — ideally, to a venue intimate enough to preserve both the impact of the material and the elegance of the stagecraft.

The history of this collaborative work is almost as fascinating as the long-buried secrets it dramatizes. After stumbling across the story in the university archives, a reporter on the Harvard Crimson repeatedly petitioned the administration to release the sealed records of this 80-year-old case. Further research by a team of student reporters finally turned up the redacted names of the participants — and what became of them.

Tony Speciale, director, co-author, and an associate director at CSC, took it from there. Leading a team of writers and researchers from the Plastic Theater, the helmer devised a production concept that allowed the ensemble to create their characters through improvisational exercises.

In a sense, the performers actually own their characters, which surely explains why these eleven young men, whose lives are stripped bare in the play after a friend’s suicide leads to their exposure, seem so intimately connected to the eleven young men who play them.

Costumer Andrea Lauer (“American Idiot”) expands on the revelations about their personalities with extraordinarily individualized and period-perfect outfits reflecting both their social rank and personal traits.

Ernest Roberts (an assertive Nick Westrate), the rich and much-indulged son of a Congressman, is the bold ringleader of this set, holding wild parties in his private rooms (in Walt Spangler’s handsome design, a masculine den of dark furniture, warm carpets, and expensive liquor) and leading the group on excursions into Boston to pick up sailors.

Edward Say (Jess Burkle, quick of wit and sharp of tongue), the lad with the beautifully tailored suits and the spit curl over his eye, is the most flamboyant member of the group. His sweet, clueless roommate, Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers, his face an open book), is the dormitory brain.

All the other friends in this secret circle, from the outgoing jock to the closeted teacher, have been drawn with the same fidelity to class, character, and sartorial style. And Eugene Cummings, the thoughtful one played with fine sensitivity by Brad Koed, is the unheeded conscience of them all.

Individually and collectively, they are an interesting group, but hardly the blessed martyrs that the play’s more overwrought passages make them out to be. (Would anyone have taken up their cause if they had been expelled for doing drugs in the stacks of Widener Library or having orgies in their rooms with Radcliffe freshmen?)

True enough, they suffered cruelly for “unnatural” behavior that at the time carried criminal penalties. But they were a reckless bunch, these privileged youth, spurred on by a sense of social superiority and personal entitlement that led to a false and fatal sense of invulnerability. And taken individually, only a few of them — the unselfish few who show honest concern for someone other than themselves — deserve the compassion the play insistently demands of us. And that’s something that should be seriously considered before any transfer moves are set in motion.

Unnatural Acts

Classic Stage Company; 199 seats; $65 top

Production

A presentation by the Classic Stage Company of a play in two acts conceived and directed by Tony Speciale and written by members of the Plastic Theater.

Creative

Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Andrea Lauer; lighting, Justin Townsend; original music and sound, Christian Frederickson; dramaturg, Heather Denyer; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner III. Reviewed June 22, 2011. Opened June 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

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

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