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Prejudice and fear ruin lives, in 'Unnatural Acts'

When the chips are down, can you really count on your friends not to betray you for their own survival?
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the chips are down, can you really count on your friends not to betray you for their own survival?

In the spring of 1920, five top administrators at Harvard University held a secret kangaroo court to interview, charge and expel a group of students suspected of homosexuality, before they "infected" the entire school.

The secret was kept for 80 years, until a reporter at the Harvard Crimson student newspaper uncovered the incident in 2002. Tony Speciale and members of the Plastic Theatre did additional research and speculation about the men involved with this kangaroo court, then created the powerful new drama "Unnatural Acts," which opened Thursday night off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company.

Speciale, the associate artistic director of CSC, has staged this engrossing story with flair and impressive theatricality, employing a company of extremely talented actors. In a riveting series of increasingly charged vignettes, he unspools a story of prejudice, intimidation, friendship, fear and betrayal that displays the crushing effect of societally-approved homophobia in early 20th-century America.

The tragic events begin with the suicide of a former student that exposes his homosexuality. All of his friends, still at Harvard, are then suspected of also being homosexual, which is considered a "disease," and are soon called individually before the tribunal. The action builds to an affecting flash point through the skill of the actors, then offers a sad coda that is no less distressing for its inevitability.

Eleven actors perform as students and an assistant professor, with five expertly switching roles back and forth to double as inflexible, relentless judges. All give powerful, moving performances. Scenes of the student's academic pursuits and playfulness as a brotherhood of like-minded friends stand in sharp contrast to dark depictions of the interrogations, when the young men become desperate to save their educations, future careers and family reputations.

These grim questionings are neatly handled by Speciale, who seats each student in a pool of light before the shadowy judges. The script juxtaposes students' replies, and their conversations with one another before or after the inquisitions, to create several ironic scenes with overlapping evasions, uneasy defenses, increasing despair and eventual disloyalty.

Student Eugene Cummings (sensitively portrayed by Brad Koed) also serves as the narrator, his emotional speeches illuminating the mindset of men who feel rejected and misunderstood by society. Nick Westrate is smoothly cynical as a Congressman's son and the group's leader. Max Jenkins gives a mocking performance as a self-aware man who nearly outwits the judges. Joe Curnutte radiates decency as a World War I veteran who wants to become a doctor.

In a thunderously climactic and unforgettable scene, now-disheartened Eugene recites a defiant litany of outcast loneliness and anger. All around him, the other actors move in lockstep, chanting phrases from their testimonies and performing identical robotic motions with increasing volume and speed. Amid this manic chorus, Cummings asks the most important question of the play: "If it occurs in nature, how can it be unnatural?"

"Unnatural Acts" is performing a limited engagement through July 10.