A New Nas Doc Looks Back on Illmatic

One rhyme in particular crystallizes the genius of Nas’s 1994 classic Illmatic. It comes in the song “One Love,” which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison: “Congratulations, you know you got a son,” Nas raps. “I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?”

Did you get that? In 19 words, Nas swings from the perspective-upending pride of fatherhood — a new human who is part you! — to the heartache of separation, loneliness, disloyalty. He whispers the knife of betrayal into our gut with a simple question: “Why don’t your lady write ya?” Nas paints not just a man in prison, yearning for the outside, but a whole web of relationships decaying in his absence.

Lyrical feats like these helped Illmatic win a perfect five-mic score from The Source in ’94, and a perfect 10 from Pitchfork when it was reissued last year, making it one of the most acclaimed of all hip-hop albums. (It does have a few flaws.) But Illmatic‘s towering reputation challenges anyone seeking to comment on it further: After 20 years, plus the 2001 sequel (Stillmatic), the reissue of the original, the 33 1/3 book, and the countless essays, hagiographic and otherwise, what could possibly be left to say?

Wisely, then, Nas: Time Is Illmatic leans toward biography. The film traces the life of Nas from his childhood in the notorious Queensbridge housing projects up through the making and release of Illmatic. Director One9 skips the bulk of Nas’s rap career — which, suffice it to say, hasn’t been as consistent as his debut — to find Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones a 41-year-old elder statesman. He’s widely respected, even by onetime rivals like Jay-Z, yet his highest-profile concerts still feature songs he wrote as a teenager. This isn’t a critical portrait by any means. But the film understands that the most interesting thing about Nas is how he once converted 20 years of living into 40 minutes of art that transcends its genre, its era, even its medium.

Time Is Illmatic goes remarkably deep, taking us all the way back to the Mississippi childhood of Nas’s father, the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara Jones. The elder Jones found himself discharged from the Navy in New York, where he met a woman; soon, she’d given birth to two boys, Nasir and his younger brother, Jabari. While Olu Dara went on tour, becoming a celebrated figure in avant-garde jazz, Fannie Jones moved her boys into the largest public housing project in the world.

They lived a better life than many neighbors did, with regular meals, books, and musical instruments. But as crack and violence consumed the neighborhood (we get plenty of historical context in these 74 minutes), Olu Dara found himself shocked by the harshness of his sons’ childhood. “I went to enroll them in school — it was like enrolling them in hell,” he remembers. When school didn’t work out, he encouraged Nas and Jabari to quit and pursue creative projects on their own. But no one could shelter them completely. In a scuffle one afternoon, Nas’s longtime best friend and neighbor, Ill Will, was shot and killed. Jabari was wounded. The boys and their mother continued to live in their Queensbridge apartment, but Nas came to realize that he needed an escape from life on the streets.

He engineered that escape through rap. After Ill Will’s death, Nas dove into music, eventually surfacing on the New York rap radar as a guest on the Main Source track “Live at the Barbecue.” His punishing intro verse — “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” — made Nasty Nas into a hot, if local, quantity. Then Columbia Records found him. The film sends us to producers like Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip to hear how they were approached by a young Nas and impressed by him — not just his flow, but the wisdom and depth of his rhymes. Critics often focus on the technical skill of rap lyrics, the poetic intertwining of sounds and meanings, and there is plenty of that to celebrate on Illmatic. But as far as this film is concerned, the greatness of the album comes from how it captures a time, a place, and the painful choices that shaped the lives. In one of the most moving scenes, Jabari looks at the photo of nearly two dozen Queensbridge boys from the liner notes of Illmatic. Every one he points to is now in jail.

Meanwhile, present-day Nas performs for thousands and travels to Harvard to announce a fellowship in his name. Seated among black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates Jr., this final scene serves as an anointing for Nasir Jones, an acknowledgment of his place as one of hip-hop’s finest living lyricists. Better than his posh home or chauffeured Mercedes, it shows how far Nas has come: Years ago, he rapped, “My people be projects or jail, never Harvard or Yale.”

Directed by One9.


Vijay Iyer and the Brentano String Quartet

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer has won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” regularly tops the jazz critics’ polls, and recently began teaching at Harvard. With a degree in physics from Yale and a doctorate in music cognition from Berkeley, Iyer attests to the often counterintuitive correlation between music and math. Contrary to sociobiologist Steven Pinker’s assertion that music is “auditory cheesecake,” a byproduct of the pleasure principle, Iyer cites free jazz visionary Cecil Taylor’s maxim that “music is everything that you do.” Ergo Time, Place, Action, Iyer’s new piano quintet that is a celebration of life as collective improvisation and features the Brentano String Quartet, the strings behind A Late Quartet.

Thu., April 24, 7 p.m., 2014


HairBrained Finds Its Identity in Long Line of College Comedies

Billy Kent’s charming HairBrained comes from a long legacy of collegiate comedies but still finds its own identity.

After he fails to get into Harvard, 14-year-old genius and hair farmer Eli (Alex Wolff) must settle for the fictional Whittman College. Ranked the 37th best small liberal arts college on the East Coast, Whittman is home to lovable losers like Leo (Brendan Fraser), a 41-year-old gambler trying to make a fresh start.

The picture’s primary relationship isn’t so much between Eli and Leo, but rather Eli and the members of Whittman’s Collegiate Mastermind Team, who harness his encyclopedic knowledge of useless information in hopes of avoiding getting pounded by the quiz team from Eli’s beloved Harvard.

HairBrained avoids becomes a slobs-versus-snobs comedy, the requisite jock bully is a minor character at best, and the expected elements of Eli learning to lighten up and Leo learning to take responsibility are nicely underplayed, as is Eli’s relationship with a similarly frizzy-maned townie (Julia Garner).

Trivia buffs will feast on the Masterminds sequences — more movies should find excuses to reference Dock Ellis’s legendary LSD-fueled no-hitter — but HairBrained is ultimately a celebration of being unapologetically smart and different, and an acknowledgment that sometimes you really do need a lot of hair to protect your brain.


More Bucks, Same Bang

At this time last year, Lily Jones and Sonika Mehta were both weighing their college options: private or public? East Coast or West? Big city or small?

Today, as first-year students at New York University, they’re each happy with their decision to seek their undergraduate degrees at one of the nation’s top schools. Just listen:

“I definitely do feel very bad,” says Jones. “I still feel kind of guilty.”

“I feel guilty all the time,” Mehta chimes in.

“Not bad,” clarifies Jones. “I just feel guilty.”

The two are discussing a topic on the minds of hundreds of thousands of high school seniors this fall as they consider college applications: tuition costs, which are rising at about double the rate of inflation, with no sign of slowing. Neither Jones nor Mehta receives grants or scholarship money, so they—or in this case, their parents, hence the guilt—are on the hook for the entire cost of an NYU education, which after housing costs can clear $60,000 a year.

Mehta, who considered some cheaper state universities before settling on NYU, says she ultimately decided the price would be worth it for the easy access to New York City and its cultural riches. “But I do realize how much money it is. It’s a ridiculous amount of money.”

Students who take on staggering debt loads or drain their parents’ savings to go to high-priced schools generally assume a payoff once they’re out in the working world. “Anyone can go to a state school,” explains Evan Lee, a sophomore economics major at NYU, of his decision to pay several thousand dollars more a year (after scholarships) instead of settling for State University of New York–Binghamton. “A lot of the job applications that I’ve looked at, they say ‘requires a high GPA from a top school.’ A school like Binghamton, they’re good, but if I go to Chicago, they might say, ‘What’s a Binghamton?'”

It’s common reasoning: A selective-college diploma may come at a high price, but it will open doors that might have been closed to you if you’d attended a cheaper public school. Except for one thing, say the authors of the most exhaustive study to track the post-graduation earnings of students by school selectivity: It’s hogwash.

“Where you go to school doesn’t matter near so much as who you are—how smart you are, how ambitious you are—in terms of how it affects your later income,” says Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research, who, with Princeton economist (and former top Obama adviser) Alan Krueger, has conducted two major studies of selective colleges and their effects on future income. “Everyone looks around and says, ‘Wow, these people who went to Harvard make a lot of money.’ And it’s certainly true. But what people can’t really see is what they would have made had they not gone to Harvard.”

To account for this effect—that students at top schools are bound to be top students, and so more likely to be successful regardless of where they choose to get their diploma—Dale and Krueger concocted a clever workaround: They compared post-graduation income among cohorts who were accepted at the same schools—say, both the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University. Their finding: There was no statistically significant correlation between choosing a more selective (and expensive) undergraduate program and future earnings.

“Our findings are very surprising to a lot of people,” says Dale. “I think everyone’s gut feeling is it’s got to pay off—why would people ever pay for Yale or Harvard if it doesn’t pay off?”

Sticker Shock

It’s hardly news that the cost of a college degree is soaring. Higher-ed experts cite elite institutions conducting bidding wars for top faculty and state cuts to spending on public universities as two prime reasons, but have few suggestions for how to stem the tide; in August, President Obama proposed cutting federal financial aid dollars for schools that overcharge for tuition, but this would require Congressional action, and in any case wouldn’t kick in until 2018 at the earliest.

In the meantime, college cost experts caution that prospective students weighing their college options should look not at sticker price—the

“tuition plus fees” number that is commonly highlighted—but at net cost, your expected total outlay after getting back any available grants and scholarships. It’s a calculation made easier by the net cost calculators that any schools wishing to receive federal student loan money have had to include on their websites since 2011; these allow applicants to plug in their family financial data and get back an estimate of what they’ll actually be on the hook for after available grants and scholarships.

In some cases, it’s a huge difference. Columbia’s cost calculator shows that a typical new student from a family with $100,000 in annual income could end up paying only about $15,000 of the school’s $64,000 in annual tuition, fees, and housing; the average cost per student is about $20,000, according to the school’s own figures. At NYU, the numbers are less dramatic but still significant: A school spokesperson says that its average student pays just 77 percent of the roughly $60,000 in annual costs, with those that receive financial aid paying an average of about $34,000.


Still, that’s a sizeable nut, especially compared to the roughly $10,000 per year that a City University of New York degree costs (double that if you require housing) before financial aid is factored in, even after the public school’s recent tuition hikes that spurred mass protests. Other schools in the five boroughs don’t come out much better in the comparison: A student at Fordham University whose family earns the New York City median income (about $57,000), for example, would still be on the hook for $46,000 of the school’s annual $57,000 in tuition and other costs.

Columbia dean of undergraduate admissions Jessica Marinaccio cites the university’s strong faculty, small class size, and exceptional resources as reasons to attend. NYU dean of admissions Shawn Abbott, while acknowledging that “NYU is an expensive university to attend,” says it’s worth it both for access to top professors, and for the contacts students can make there.

“The reality is that our students intern and work regularly with little fanfare at places I only dreamed about as a college student in rural New Hampshire,” writes Abbott via e-mail. “My classmates and fraternity brothers didn’t intern at MTV, or Vogue, or with the New York Yankees. We didn’t write for the Village Voice, and we didn’t spend early morning hours before class at the New York Stock Exchange.” As a result, he says, more than 92 percent of last year’s NYU graduating class were employed within six months of graduation, with an average annual salary of around $52,000.

Yet Dale responds that, according to‘s college salary data (which is drawn from employee surveys), the average starting salary of a SUNY–Binghamton graduate is nearly as much, at $47,200—and that’s not accounting for the fact that NYU students are likely drawn from a higher-talent, higher-income pool to start with. “I think it is hard to come up with concrete examples of things that elite colleges teach (and that less elite colleges do not teach as well) that would translate to higher earnings,” she writes via e-mail.

Exceptions to the Rule

For all the cold water that Dale and Krueger have thrown on the value of a high-priced college education, their studies have shown one group for whom a degree from a more selective school does lead to greater rewards. “For racial and ethnic minorities (black and Hispanic students) and for students whose parents have relatively little education,” they wrote in a 2011 update of their original 1999 study, “our estimates [of the income benefits of a selective-college degree] remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics.” Why would all diplomas be equal for most students, but not for these? Dale’s theory: “For the upper-middle-class kid who could have gone to Harvard, even if he didn’t go, he’s well-connected, his parents probably have decent jobs and can help him find a job after college.” Students of color or those without college graduates in their family tree are less likely to already have those connections, “so going to a selective college really gives those kids a boost in terms of their networking.”

The trouble is, those aren’t the students who are, by and large, going to the Harvards of the world. In July, Jeff Strohl and Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released “Separate and Unequal,” a report that investigated how American higher education is becoming increasingly stratified by race and class. More than four-fifths of incoming white students go to top-ranked schools, explains Strohl, while nearly three-quarters of black and Hispanic students begin at open-access two- and four-year colleges. This disparity occurs in graduation rates as well, he says, even if you account for the fact that more selective schools attract better students. Students of color who scored in the top half of college entrants graduate about 40 percent of the time at open-access schools, but 73 percent at the more selective schools.

“Our data shows that if you take minority students who score well and put them in a good school, they’re going to do better,” says Strohl.

Strohl agrees with Dale that more affluent students don’t get much additional benefit from the added resources at pricier schools, but poorer and minority students do. He calls it the difference between “having the middle- or upper-class cocoon or not,” pointing to himself as an example: “My parents were professors, I grew up on a college campus. There’s a whole set of supporting mechanisms that pick you up when you fall down.”


There are two obvious solutions, though neither is easy to implement: either get more students with poor resources into top schools, despite the high cost; or somehow reallocate the riches that selective colleges have at their disposal to the cheaper schools where low-income students already congregate.

“If we moved $1,000 of educational resources from Harvard to Howard, what would happen to the graduation rate at Howard?” asks Strohl. “We don’t know the answer because we’ve never had that experiment.”

New Scorecards in the Works

There is some hope on the horizon for students wishing to know what bang they’ll get for their tuition buck. Earlier this year, notes David Bergeron, a former Obama education official now at the think tank Center for American Progress, White House Domestic Policy Council deputy director James Kvaal promised that the Education Department would start publishing earnings data on each school’s graduates, filling in a space on its College Scorecard that has long been left blank.

The new numbers would be generated by an ingenious end run around limits on tracking earnings: Instead of relying on alumni surveys, the government intends to cross-reference financial aid payment information with Social Security earnings data to generate average income figures for each school—albeit just for those students who receive financial aid. Bergeron, who was at the Education Department when it first began developing the college scorecards, says he expected the figures to be available this month—though “clearly it won’t happen now,” after the department lost two weeks to the government shutdown. “The department fully understands this time we’re in right now is when high school seniors are deciding where to apply.”

In the meantime, students weighing their college options are left to calculate schools’ relative costs and benefits on their own. For Anthony Sganga, a New Jersey native who transferred from Bergen Community College to NYU, his initial determination was that it wasn’t worth it: “I would not take out $60,000 in loans.” But after discovering a scholarship program for community college students that could reduce his debt load to $12,000 a year, slightly more than it would have cost him to transfer to Rutgers, he changed his mind. “In my case, it’s a no-brainer, because 12 grand is a large chunk, but there aren’t that many schools today where you’re going to get that little to pay for college.”

Is this kind of financial calculus typical of many of his peers? “Not enough. I don’t know if two years ago, when I first came out of high school, I would have done the same amount of research,” says Sganga. “When students are 18, you just say, ‘That’s my dream college, I want to go there.’ I don’t think enough students do that—and then four years later they get the bill and think, ‘How did this happen?'”


Steel Yourself for Leviathan, A Watery Knockout

End of days or the beginning of new ways of seeing? Fittingly, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, an all-senses-consuming chronicle of a fishing trawler, takes its title from the sea beast described in the Book of Job, lines from which constitute the film’s epigraph: “He makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.” Here, the roiling of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, suggests nothing less than the apocalypse. (Indeed, nature’s waterlogged wrath may be too fresh for many viewers along the Eastern Seaboard). And yet, in going far beyond observational-documentary mode into full, relentless, estranging immersion, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have created a work that has the power to ignite long-dormant synapses. (Like those perhaps apocryphal viewers who screamed and ran to the back of the room while watching the Lumière brothers’ 1895 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, I, too, was often terrified—pleasingly—by what I saw.)

In their previous works, Castaing-Taylor, the director of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and Paravel, a faculty member in the program, have been drawn to vanishing ways of life. The unforgettable sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass (2009), which Castaing-Taylor directed with Ilisa Barbash, records the last time, in the early aughts, that cowboys led their flocks up into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture. Paravel’s Foreign Parts (2010), which she co-directed with J.P. Sniadecki, presents the ramshackle Willets Point section of Queens, an area soon to be razed to make room for a hotel and a convention center. Like these films, Leviathan, itself about an endangered industry, brooks no sentimentality. But unlike the earlier works, framed in crisp, frequently majestic compositions, Leviathan lists and pitches, always in ceaseless, disorienting motion; its point of view rapidly shifts from fisherman to seagull to gasping fish to flotsam and jetsam several leagues below.

The density of aural and visual stimuli overwhelms—and liberates. What at first sounds like an alarm on deck could be the keening of an animal or a member of the crew. Most of the fishers’ barked directives are unintelligible, except for this one: “No, no, no, no, no!” Cratered, scabbed, and creased faces, fleetingly glimpsed, convey just how brutal this work is—a point wryly underscored as one beefy shipmate, watching what sounds like Deadliest Catch, slowly nods out, lulled to sleep by the TV’s histrionic voiceover. Fish guts, heads, eyeballs, and blood rush toward you, though it often takes a few moments to register that what you’re seeing is a piscine abattoir. But those moments of confusion, of feeling unmoored, approximate the rush of free fall.

Plunging viewers into the thick of chaos, Leviathan explodes the antiquated paradigm of the documentary or ethnographic film, whose mission has traditionally been to educate or elucidate, to create something that seizes us, never letting us forget just how disordered the world is. This may be the greatest lesson any nonfiction film can teach us.


Losing Control

In the ostensibly charming, actually grating Losing Control, Harvard biophysics grad student Samantha (Miranda Kent) toils away in the lab—after early success, she’s struggling to reproduce results—while trying to find a mate more suitable than longtime boyfriend Ben (Reid Scott). After his unexpected marriage proposal is rejected, model citizen Ben accepts a fellowship to study in China, and type A Sam works to ensure life hews more closely to her plan, mocking up a chart on which she can “empirically” rank the attributes of potential suitors. Misadventures are in store: Her work—which, adorably, involves expressing a protein that kills Y-chromosome-carrying sperm—makes for complicated small talk, and she’s constantly having to check her samples at inconvenient times. The sitcom hyper-reality liberates first-time writer/director Valerie Weiss to amp up the lame ethnic ribbing (Sam has fretful Jewish parents and an impossible-to-understand, probably incompetent Chinese colleague) and the plucky raunch. After a few misfires—a tantric-sex coach manages to ejaculate right into a test tube, but isn’t a great date—Sam homes in on a Euro performance artist (Theo Alexander) with an exhibitionist streak. The blue rom-com then takes a frenzied late turn into espionage territory, an attempt to gather momentum that only makes the film more tiresome.



We all hoped for fireworks when the owners finally brought on some big names last season, but we’re barely seeing sparks as injuries have taken their toll—Carmelo Anthony is struggling with a groin injury, and the Nets suffered a worse blow when Brook Lopez broke his foot during the preseason. Revenge might fuel this match as the Knicks won the February 3 clash of Hudson River rivals, 99-92. Meanwhile, thank God for the Knicks’ Ivy League whiz, Jeremy Lin, a Harvard grad they picked up on waivers in December. After a sensational start, five fans were spotted in the stands wearing shirts that spelled out L-I-N-1-7. Here’s hoping the 6-3 point guard can lead a charge to the playoffs.

Mon., Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m., 2012


Robert Gardner’s Visions

A man of many worlds, Robert Gardner is a descendent of Boston aristocrat Isabella Stewart Gardner (as in the Museum), the founder (and funder) of Harvard’s Film Study Center, and mainly the globetrotting ethno-aesthete of American cinema—a filmmaker whose documentaries have been hailed by the avant-garde’s godfather Stan Brakhage and anthropology’s grand dame Margaret Meade.

Shot in the highlands of New Guinea, Dead Birds, the 1964 feature that established Gardner’s reputation—and opens his week-long Film Forum retro on Friday, with the filmmaker on hand—is an amazingly bleak and undeniably beautiful vision of human existence made in the course of an expedition whose other members included novelist Peter Matthiessen and the later-to-vanish Michael Rockefeller. Dead Bird’s sense of downbeat, almost psychotic otherness, if not quite that of a culture predicated on endless feuds and vengeance murder, was recapitulated a decade later in Rivers of Sand (1974), a contemplation of spousal abuse and survival skills among the Hamar tribes people of drought prone southwestern Ethiopia.

As visceral as Dead Birds and Rivers of Sand are, Gardner came into his own as a visionary with the exquisitely shot Deep Hearts (1980), a shamelessly expressionistic documentary of the annual political convention cum beauty contest held by the Bororo herdsmen of the upper Niger. (By Gardner’s request it was first shown at Film Forum with Peter Kubelka’s avant-garde Unsere Afrikereise.) The Bororo have an idea of themselves as “an exclusive and beautiful people.” Using a wide-angle lens and super slow motion, Gardner makes his subjects even more exotic than they are—at the very least, it’s impossible to draw a line between his aestheticism and theirs.

Even headier are Gardner’s two Indian films. The fiercely lyrical Sons of Shiva (1985) records an elaborate four-day ritual that temporarily effaces caste differences among the hash zonked Shiva-worshippers of West Bengal. Its fauvist color schemes are exceeded only by the hues of Gardner’s 1986 masterpiece Forest of Bliss, a portrait of the gaudy Ganges-side necropolis Benares that includes an astonishing catalogue of images: carrion-seeking dogs, flaming orange garlands, toothless healers and hawkers of sacred fire. Is it authentically Indian? Who knows?


Two Harvard Grads, Two WWII Stories, in A Twentieth Century Tale

A brief, loose, and rather meager addition to the swaying pile of WWII-ephemera documentaries, Richard Kaplan’s A 20th Century Tale parallels the respective fates of two Harvard graduates during wartime. One, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, was deemed qualifiedwby his part–American heritage and Ivy League education to act as Adolf Hitler’s Foreign Press Bureau chief but fell out with Nazi brass, defecting in 1937 to spend the war years telling what he knew to American intelligence. The other, Varian Fry, was a classics scholar-turned-foreign correspondent who reported on anti-Semitic violence in Hitler’s Germany well ahead of the pack. Tale concentrates mostly on Fry’s 1940-41 stay in Marseilles, during which he arranged for the escape of refugees from occupied Vichy France, often in the teeth of state department resistance. Kaplan’s biographical diptych is made up of recited excerpts from letters and memoirs, stock footage, and talking heads who recount, among other things, the period in which Fry’s headquarters became a bohemian salon. While emphasizing his subjects’ shared alma mater and single professional meeting, Kaplan doesn’t locate any telling contrasts by pairing these personalities. This is what comes of dumping material on a viewer, rather than arranging it.


Unnatural Acts: The School for Scandal

While we’re celebrating New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage, Unnatural Acts (Classic Stage Company) has arrived, with perfect timing, to be the ghost at the feast, a salutary reminder of the many for whom the gay-rights movement arrived too late. The lives hounded into misery, isolation, suicide, and other forms of premature death make up a grim and dauntingly long list, which no group exemplifies better than the Harvard men who, in 1920, used Perkins 28, the dorm room of undergrad Ernest Weeks Roberts, as a social center.

Roberts (Nick Westrate), a retired congressman’s son, was a child of privilege, like many of those at the frequent parties in his suite. But others weren’t. Much like the crowd you’d meet in any gay bar today, Roberts’s guests included middle-class kids for whom a Harvard degree equaled a step up the socioeconomic ladder, artistic kids aspiring to professional careers, and working-class townies out for a good gay time. World War I, just ended, had left prewar moral values as wrecked as Europe; “dangerous” books still banned in Boston, like Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion, circulated clandestinely but freely. The ’20s were only starting to roar.

Harvard’s establishment, reared on pious Victorian principles, hardly knew how to cope. The messy events that Unnatural Acts covers began to emerge from Perkins 28, and got a lot messier, when Cyril Wilcox, a troubled undergrad from Fall River, Massachusetts, committed suicide at home by “accidentally” leaving the gas tap on in his room. Wilcox’s older brother (Roderick Hill), a Harvard alum already showing signs of mental instability—he spent his last two decades in a state asylum—discovered letters that Roberts and another undergrad had written Cyril, full of gay gossip, naming names. After beating up one of the townies so named—who, under duress, supplied more names—the elder Wilcox took his evidence to Harvard’s president, at whose orders the college’s acting dean assembled a five-man “secret court” to investigate.

Its proceedings stayed secret until 2002, when a reporter from the Crimson, the student newspaper, stumbled on the court’s records in an archive. Subsequent research has revealed much, sometimes despite Harvard’s reluctance, about the lives of the college men “tainted” by the goings-on in Perkins 28, and in some cases destroyed as a consequence of the dean’s investigation. The case has inspired a book, an indie film, and two plays: Stan Richardson’sVeritas, seen in the 2010 Fringe Festival, began as a collaboration with Unnatural Acts‘ creators, Plastic Theatre and its director, Tony Speciale.

Though the two works tell the same story and draw, essentially, the same moral from it, their stylistic differences clearly explain why Richardson split off from Speciale and his troupe. Veritas strove for an archly “literary” period diction, partly inspired by the tone of the Wilcox letters; Unnatural Acts, reserving its artifice for its stage pictures and directorial devices, tends to be more down-to-earth verbally. In Veritas, the parties Roberts hosted evoked the italicized orgies in Erich von Stroheim silent films; analogous scenes in Unnatural Acts look, more persuasively, like undergraduate queers getting cheerfully raunchy.

The increased sobriety of tone that clearly comes with Speciale’s directorial sensibility transmits the substance of the story far better, but offers its own drawback: an earnestness of language that, unlike Richardson’s beribboned phraseology, sometimes edges uncomfortably close to cliché. Where Richardson went for the fervid, painting the two students who got off most lightly as black-hearted betrayers, Unnatural Acts fixes them, lucidly, as victims desperately seeking their own ways out of the common dilemma. Its one grave mistake is to get preachy about that dilemma, with a gigantic final speech that lasts exactly twice as long as necessary, accompanied by ensemble choreography that crumbles in focus just as the speech gets repetitive.

But this excess, like the show’s other flaws, looms small in the context of the big matters it gets right. The differences in outlook between 1920 and today are caught clearly, as is the unvarying, fear-driven bigotry that’s made the gay journey from then to now such an anguished, embittering struggle. The show’s acting, like its collectively authored script, varies in quality, but its overall skill and good sense make its tale of unjustly wrecked lives painfully tangible.