Fringe Festival plays gay, with mixed results

The secret court: A scene from 'Veritas.' ()
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“Fair Harvard”? Perhaps not. As Veritas, a smart new play at the New York International Fringe Festival, makes clear, the storied university has not always lived up to the name of its famous commencement song—nor its motto, Latin for “truth,” which gives this play its title.

In 1920, a student’s suicide sparked a massive investigation into homosexuality at Harvard, resulting in expulsions, professional blackballing, and, ultimately, more suicides. Harvard’s secret court was only made public in 2002, when a student journalist discovered thousands of papers from the hearings. Reading those papers inspired Stan Richardson to write Veritas, based on this true story.

Richardson depicts gay life 90 years ago as surprisingly free, at least within the hallowed halls of the university: Parties take place openly with readily available sex, men call each other “my sweet” in public and express physical affection without much hesitation, and letters are written with only minimal discretion. But the crackdown that follows puts an end to all that. “They will be crushed, shattered,” says the man who launches the anti-gay crusade, and his words prove correct.

Veritas gets off to a slow start, with too many shuffling chairs and too many characters to keep straight, as it were. But it picks up steam as the hearings begin and the clique of light-hearted men who were once friends, lovers, and party pals collapses under the brutal weight of each-man-for-himself interrogations. One by one the men face a common demand from a court determined to root out all men “practicing homosexualism” at Harvard: “State the names!” Some rat out their friends, others their rivals; some confess their own deeds, others only the deeds of peers; some take a risk by defying the authorities, most do not.

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Director Ryan Davis uses some effective techniques to intersperse testimony with inner thoughts and outside conversations, with the performers talking on top of one another or cutting each other off, repeating themselves or skipping around like a broken record when the interrogators stamp their feet. Brian Tovar’s lighting—questioners hidden in the dark, terrified students under a spotlight on a bare stage, unable to see their accusers—heightens the tension.

Veritas reaches an intense climax in the concluding scene, moving forward nearly 50 years and focusing on the two men who were found not guilty during the hearings; these two “lucky” ones—who got off easy by lying about themselves and betraying their friends—recount the grim post-college circumstances of those who were not so lucky at the 1920 hearings, men who never recovered from the disgrace. It’s a risky scene, bitter and angry, but it’s played with seething self-loathing by Justin Blanchard as the oily Stanley Gilkey, and it serves as both a moving eulogy to those men who suffered before the court and a vicious indictment of the culture that both set the investigation in motion and demanded the hypocrisy that would exact revenge on the most truthful and let only the liars go free.

Among the strong ensemble cast, Eric Nelsen is utterly believable as the acerbic, rouge-wearing Edward Say, a cherubic queen with sharp teeth. And Matt Steiner is heart-breaking as Keith Smerage, an aspiring actor who refuses to name names in an act of self-immolation and bravery. An argument Smerage has with his sometimes boyfriend Nathaniel Woolf (the charismatic Paul Downs Colaizzo) about what they’ll say before the court devolves into something between a wrestling match and a romantic interlude, with Woolf ultimately admonishing, “Stop acting like a queer and people will stop thinking you’re one.” It packs a wallop as strong as the actual fistfight in another particularly difficult scene.

With so many young, well-spoken, white guys in suits on stage at once, a bit more decisive character development near the beginning would help audiences identify each man—his motivation and what he stands to lose—and differentiate the overlapping roles. And one ill-conceived and jarringly flippant scene flashing forward to the final days of Lester (the man who instigated the whole probe when he discovered incriminating letters to his brother) should be cut in its entirety. But these are minor quibbles for a promising show with great ambitions, a keen sense of fairness, a strong script, and an able cast to pull it all off.

Veritas was the first Fringe show to sell out its entire run before the festival started. It’s strong enough to have a future run of its own—although it may be beaten to the punch by Tony Speciale’s Unnatural Acts, a different show about the same subject that’s set to open off-Broadway next summer.

ANOTHER LONG-FORGOTTEN, REAL-LIFE gay sex-scandal lies at the heart of The Twentieth-Century Way, also at Fringe. In 1914, the police department in Long Beach, California, hired two actors to go undercover and entrap men engaging in “oral vice” (the play’s title refers to a term for fellatio used at the time) in public bathrooms and private parties. The men who were caught—their penises marked with indelible ink during these encounters, to serve as proof of their crimes—were arrested and named in the newspapers.

Sadly, this key background information, explained in the program, is missing from the play itself. So the opening scene, where two actors who are competing for the same undisclosed role try to psych each other out before an audition, could be taking place anywhere; it’s never clear that they’re auditioning to become vice cops, rather than ordinary actors in a play. After this clunky and nebulous beginning, the actors embark on a prolonged “improvisation,” portraying gay men, detectives, newspaper editors, and others—but again, without the proper set-up, it reads as a random acting exercise, as opposed to the historical simulation it might have been. Gay men were masterful at eluding capture, “Houdinis of abomination” as one character puts it, so police had to devise particularly insidious ways of entrapping them. These methods would eventually be used across the country, and the world, to persecute gay men for the next century.

As a piece of writing, Tom Jacobson’s script is smart, articulate, and rich in detail—some speculative, some taken from primary source materials. Unfortunately, as a piece of theater it’s confusing, dispassionate, and long-winded. It all builds to a melodramatic and pretentious conclusion, where the two actors remove their clothes to reveal their true selves. (“Who gets to be themselves, really?” asks one, in a hit-me-with-a-sledgehammer moment.) It’s tough to make a play about blowjobs unsexy, but not even the two (very appealing) naked men on stage at the end can keep the blood pumping in this cerebral piece.

If the play itself is overthought and overwrought, the two excellent actors—Will Bradley and Robert Mammana—handle the material deftly. They switch from cop to reporter to florist in mere seconds, and their accents and demeanors and body language manage to keep up. As the pace increases, these two become thespian acrobats. But it’s more impressive than compelling.

As the speed and shifting roles get out of hand, one man quips, “Our little improvisation has mushroomed into madness.”

Indeed.

STILL, IT'S FAR SMARTER AND MORE ENTERTAINING THAN the truly rotten show about a gay scandal from last year’s Fringe Festival, currently running off-Broadway: Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party. It starts in rural Illinois at an elementary school play where one of the students mentions that Lincoln had an intimate relationship with another man—something he learned from his teacher. The community is outraged, and a “trial of the century” ensues over the teacher’s actions, growing in symbolic importance as big-name politicians and Pulitzer-winning journalists get involved.

After the opening scene in the school, Aaron Loeb’s script is constructed in three parts focused on three characters, and the audience gets to choose the order for the three remaining acts. This is more a gimmick than a relevant dramatic puzzle, and it makes the play drag on and on, no matter how many actors dance around wearing fake beards and stovepipe hats, or how much Cher or Donna Summer music gets played. Despite its clever title, this is a comedy with only a handful of laughs, mostly of the cheap-gag variety; it’s also a drama with almost zero dramatic tension, and a political commentary (about gay issues in red and blue states) with strangely simplistic politics.

There are a few bright spots: Arnie Burton gets in some zingers as the bitter New York Times reporter covering the trial, and Stephanie Pope Caffey commands the stage as a fiery Latina photographer. But that’s not nearly enough to save the show, which only goes to show that you can’t judge a play by its title.

For schedule and ticket information for all Fringe shows, visit www.fringenyc.org.