BOTTOM LINE: Based on a secret and shameful true episode at Harvard, this play is certainly interesting, but ultimately fails to deliver on its dramatic promise.
In 2002, papers were unearthed that described a secret court convened at Harvard in 1920 to interrogate and punish students suspected of engaging in "homosexualism." Playwright Stan Richardson undertook to write a play about the episode and create, in his own words, "a proper burial for these guys." I applaud Richardson's ambition. I wish I could report that he has indeed given these young men a suitable epitaph. Unfortunately, Veritas (which means truth) falls short dramatically, if not historically.
Richardson's first mistake is trying to give all nine young men (ten counting Cyril, whose suicide sets the crisis in motion) equal time and attention. It's an understandable impulse, but it makes it almost impossible to relate to any of them. The first half of the play is a puzzle of pretension and promiscuity. Which bored, privileged Ivy Leaguer is which? Who slept with whom? The talented young cast struggle to bring interest and individuality to their roles, but in vain. Not only are there too many of them, but as written they seem to have very few interests outside their own pleasure, and little genuine loyalty or affection for each other. Even Cyril's suicide goes unmourned by the young brilliant (and brilliantined) Cantabs.
Later one recalls: "We were naïve, and we thought the world was unconditionally on our side." Underneath the archness it seems there was an innocence, and its premature destruction was a real tragedy. How rich it would be to show us each young man grappling with the consequences of his catastrophe. Alas, all we're given is a cursory description of their fates, delivered decades later and second-hand.
Director Ryan J. Davis goes for a theatrical performance style, using lighting and sound (particularly music) to great effect. He also keeps the actors onstage to observe and comment on the action. This use of a kind of Greek Chorus is often riveting, and it's appropriate given that these young scholars are often reading Greek or translating Latin. One is reminded at times of Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency. But that play had at its center the profound and moving genius of Oscar Wilde. Veritas has no such secret weapon.
There is one major caveat to all of the above and his name is Paul Downs Colaizzo. As Nathaniel Wollf, Colaizzo creates a compelling character who is oddly artificial and yet utterly real, almost balletic and still joltingly human. His accomplice in this feat is the appealing Matt Steiner. The climactic scene they play together is so intimate and so moving that it almost makes the whole play worth it. And that's the veritas.
(Veritas plays at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue at Spring Street, through August 28th. Remaining performances are Thursday 8/26 at 3:30pm, Friday 8/27 at 5:15pm, and Saturday 8/28 at 8pm. Performances are sold out but tickets may be available at the door, if you're willing to wait. For more information visit www.VeritasThePlay.com. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at FringeNYC.com, by calling 866.468.7619, or in person at FringeCENTRAL, located at 1 East 8th Street at 5th Avenue. There is NO LATE SEATING for Fringe NYC shows.)