Harvard’s Homosexualists; Joely Richardson Unstrung: N.Y. Stage

The company of "Unnatural Acts" in New York. Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

The Harvard men in “Unnatural Acts” at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Co. don’t speak of gay pride or gay power. The year is 1920; outed “homosexualists,” as they were sometimes called, faced humiliation and expulsion.

In 2002, Harvard Crimson reporter Amit Paley successfully fought the administration to release transcripts from what was referred to as the “Secret Court, 1920.” “Unnatural Acts” is based in part on that reporting.

Conceived and directed by Tony Speciale, the play focuses on 10 men, most of them undergraduates. The Harvard administration’s inquisition and the pressure to name names foreshadows the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. An all-male cast depicts both the victims, who are initially ecstatic in their secret lives, and their dimly lit interrogators.

Speciale and five of the actors are among those credited with writing this powerful polemic that only occasionally becomes overwrought. The ugly story -- and an epilogue telling what became of the protagonists -- help explain the university’s determination to keep that star chamber’s proceedings secret. (Boroff)

Through July 10 at 136 E. 13th St. Information: +1-866-811-4111; http://www.classicstage.org Rating: ***

‘Side Effects’

Like her late sister, Natasha, Joely Richardson exudes a to-the-manner-born ease on stage that can take your breath away.

In “Side Effects,” Michael Weller’s wrenching drama of marriage and its discontents, she plays Melinda Metz, a former New York flower child transplanted to the Midwest through her marriage to Hugh, a stick-in-the-mud with political aspirations.

Her struggle with bipolar disease threatens to derail his campaign, but so does the sense of dislocation that leads her into an affair.

It takes some time, in David Auburn’s thoughtful staging, for the brittle sinews to finally snap as the marriage falls apart. But when they do, Hugh and Melinda let it rip with a cruel torrent that only the most intimate anger can inspire.

Cotter Smith has a nuanced, sinister elegance as the ambitious, somewhat devious Hugh. Watching Richardson, you’ll sense her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in every perfect covert gesture and in the natural delivery of lines that can slice through to the bone. “Side Effects” is Weller’s best play since “Spoils of War.” Don’t miss it. (Gerard)

Through July 3 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.mcctheater.org Rating: ***1/2

‘Sex Lives’

In Michael Mitnick’s “Sex Lives of Our Parents,” a prescient young woman at the brink of wedlock tries to unravel the mystery of her mother’s enduring but unhappy marriage to her father.

It’s a journey her mother is none too thrilled to take with her, leading to a revelation that’s tipped off early and unsatisfyingly resolved in Davis McCallum’s appealingly whimsical production.

Daniel Jenkins and Lisa Emery reminded me of the McFlys, Michael J. Fox’s parents in “Back to the Future” -- a once gay young girl who settled for safety with the nerdy nobody who adored her, while knowing firsthand that life had more to offer.

Virginia Kull beautifully conveys the growing panic of a young woman realizing that she’s about to make a big mistake. Ben Rappaport is sweetly befuddled as the bewildered fiance. I look forward to Mitnick’s next play. (Gerard)

Through July 3 at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway at W. 76th St. Information: +1-246-4422; http://www.2st.com Rating: **1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard and Philip Boroff are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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