nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 20, 2010
Veritas, a new play by Stan Richardson at FringeNYC, tells the shameful but true story of nine men who were victims of what amounted to a witch hunt at Harvard University in 1920. This affair—that loaded word seems particularly appropriate, as you'll discover—arose when an undergraduate named Cyril Wilcox committed suicide; his brother Lester, sifting through some letters Cyril received from his classmates, determined that Cyril had killed himself due to guilt over a homosexual affair. He contacted the president of Harvard, and an immediate effort ensued to rid the school of "inversion." Nine men were "tried" by a "Secret Court" comprised of several deans. The incident was not made public until 2002. (There's more information at Wikipedia, here.)
Before I proceed, I must offer a couple of disclaimers, especially for a review of a show whose name is Latin for "truth." Stan Richardson has been a reviewer for nytheatre.com for seven years, and NYTE published his play Another Brief Encounter in Plays and Playwrights 2007. And, as you'll discover if you see Veritas and read the program carefully, my living room is mentioned in one of the actor's bios. So I can't pretend to total objectivity about this work. Yet, that said, I will tell you that it's a significant and extremely well-crafted piece of theatre, and I am fairly confident that I'd tell you that even if I had no connections with these artists.
Let me talk about the craft first. The script is engrossing and unequivocally serious without ever feeling melodramatic on the one hand or stodgy on the other. Richardson begins by introducing us to the nine young men who frequent "Perkins 28," a room in one of the residence halls that at least in this circle was known for hosting gatherings of fellows we'd nowadays call gay. (They of course would have called themselves no such thing in 1920, and several of them probably honestly believed they were going through a phase or allowing themselves to be seduced—and that might have actually been true in some cases.) The men are mostly effete and mostly scions of the upper class. Some seem promiscuous and some seem flighty and a couple seem possibly to be in love. We discover some random facts about some of them: Keith Smerage, recently transferred from Tufts, desperately wants to join the Harvard Dramatic Society; Eugene Cummings is studying dentistry; Nathaniel Wollf, 25, desperately wants to graduate before his ailing father dies.
None of which finally matters when the cataclysm strikes this group: one by one the men are summoned to appear before an inquisition that will alter the courses of their lives forever. The questions are blunt: How often you do you masturbate? Have you ever had homosexual relations? Who went to the parties at Perkins 28 (spell the unusual names, please)? A play that had been about a group of ambitious college men discovering themselves and sex suddenly becomes a play about retribution and repression, integrity and compromise, truth and lies. Looking back, we see it's based in institutionalized homophobia, but in 1920 no one would have ever thought to look at it quite that way: homosexuality was aberrant, no questions asked.
Richardson and his simpatico director Ryan J. Davis compel us to watch as the hunted men make their stands in front of the "Secret Court." We hope for some heroism, and we get some, in small doses. This is a play about fear, and what it can do to a man, and how it can wipe out other impulses, like nobility or even love.
The ten actors form a tight, watchable ensemble: Justin Blanchard, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Mitch Dean, Morgan Karr, Eric Nelsen, Matt Steiner, Jesse Swenson, Sam Underwood, and Joseph Yeargain play the accused while Doug Kreeger plays the outsider/accuser, Lester Wilcox. The performances are powerful, and the play's cumulative impact is strong, not just for reminding us of a hushed-up scandal that we can try to dismiss, possibly naively, as the sort of thing that won't ever happen again in America, but for exposing more fundamentally the evil that is unleashed when unyielding intolerance allows revenge to trump justice.