When I saw the poignant, bare bones staging of “Veritas,” the historical drama about gay men banished from Harvard, at the 2010 New York Fringe Festival, I was enthralled. I remember thinking it deserved a more polished production in an Off Broadway venue with a proper set, lighting, seasoned cast, and adequate rehearsal time.
The latest version of “Veritas,” courtesy of The Representatives, is not that production.
Instead, the gutsy troupe, known for its site-specific, “radically intimate” theater, has reworked the drama, adding a thick, rich layer of directorial flourishes. It’s a bit like dunking a Milky Way bar into a deep fryer. Is the result superior to the original? Adventurists might say, yum, I’m in heaven. Purists might argue, no, you mucked it all up.
Immersive historical drama exposes a secret homosexual purge at Harvard
Co-directors Stan Richardson (also the playwright) and Matt Steiner (who also acts in the piece), with an assist from dramaturg Jordan Schildcrout, have let their imaginations run wild. Richardson and Steiner, by the way, are co-founders of The Representatives.
For starters, they chose a nifty nontraditional space — the rusticated basement of St. George’s Church, built in 1846 — which not only evokes a hallowed institution like Harvard but also intensifies the dread.
Upon entering the lobby, you are handed a glass of wine and a card with the portrait of a character in the play, who magically appears and escorts you down a winding ramp to your seat. More wine is offered, which comes in handy during a “bitch party” scene where you can toast the perverts of Perkins 28 (the dorm room where weekly gay soirees took place). Never mind that the year is 1920 and Prohibition is now the law of the land.
The patchy plot revolves around the nervous breakdown and tragic demise of Cyril Wilcox, a student unable to come to grips with his homosexuality. His brother (DeLance Minefee) discovers, among his effects, steamy letters written by Harvard chums and shows them to the dean. Members of Cyril’s circle, who attended the debauched parties, which featured men in drag and uniformed sailors, must submit to a secret court.
Throughout the piece, the audience moves from room to room and encounters more surprises, like a black-and-white Mary Pickford movie and a demented game show featuring a live dog.
“Veritas” is at its best during the interrogation scenes. Thanks to some clever blocking and audio-visual trickery (Paul Hudson designed the lighting), the testimonies of three men appear spliced together, magnifying the torment and absurdity of the court proceedings. The students are bombarded with questions like, “Did you ever engage in any homosexual acts? What were their names? How frequently do you masturbate?”
Sadly, most were found guilty of “homosexualism” and their lives ruined. I was reminded of a similar fact-based drama, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.”
Not all goes smoothly. Staged in the round in close quarters, the unwieldy ensemble of 10 has precious room to navigate around the audience members. The night I attended, there were technical glitches and missed cues, and the pacing was erratic.
The performances are a mixed bag. Amir Wachterman brings a smarmy boisterousness to the role of Ernest Roberts, the unflappable party host at Perkins. Chris Harral delivers the most consistent, understated turn of the evening as the closeted, boastful “ladies man” Kenneth Day.
John McGinty does an admirable job portraying Eugene Cummings, the aspiring dentist who has the courage to face Cyril’s distraught brother. McGinty, who is deaf, often uses sign language, and others attempt it as well, which adds yet another element of complexity.
Ashley Walch’s handsome period costumes go a long way to help ground the endeavor.
Talk about spunk and conviction. Snafus aside, what comes through loud and clear is a passionate, creative group of artists doing their best to offer a fresh take on a nearly century-old story. In that sense, this ambitious, fascinating yet flawed production of “Veritas” lives up to its name.
To continue the immersive experience, audience members are ushered to another room for an after-party to mingle with the cast. The hot topic of conversation? How to convince Harvard to issue posthumous degrees for these unfairly persecuted young men.
VERITAS | The Representatives | The Cave @ St. George’s at Gramercy Park, 209 E. 16th St. | Through Nov. 7: Mon.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | $18 and therepresentatives.org/veritas | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission