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Theatre in Review: Stet (Abingdon Theatre Company/June Havoc Theatre)

Jack Fellows, Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

Stet begins with a video clip from MSNBC; Erika, a reporter for a national magazine, is being interviewed about her blockbuster article documenting a brutal gang rape at an unnamed American university. The interviewer asks, "Did the boys say anything to you?" She says that everyone seems to know who they are. Erika hedges; the interviewer presses her: "But you did speak with the boys directly, the boys implicated?" "I received a statement from the fraternity," replies Erika with the air of someone who knows her answer isn't good enough. "But not one from the boys directly involved," repeats the interviewer. "What could they say?" asks Erika, innocently.

We're only three minutes into the play and even if you haven't read the program notes, you may guess that Stet is based on the notorious incident in which Rolling Stone published a 9,000-word account of a gang rape that allegedly took place during a frat-house party at the University of Virginia. The story provoked a storm of outrage, sparking conversations and demonstrations on campuses across the nation. It unleashed even more outrage when the story unraveled, as the victim's account kept changing, many key details failed to check out, and just about all of her narrative proved to be false. And, yes, the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, didn't try to contact the alleged perpetrators, largely because the supposed victim wouldn't permit it. The story ultimately won the dubious honor of Worst Journalism of 2014 from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Reading accounts of the real-life case, it's hard not to conclude that Erdely was gulled by her subject, even if the young woman appears to have suffered some terrible trauma. In writing Stet, the playwright, Kim Davies, focuses solely on the writing of the article, showing how Erika, even as she cuts corners, can't help exploiting the supposed victim, Ashley, and others, as she constructs a story designed to expose a terrible injustice. In a way, she violates Ashley all over again.

Or maybe not. Stet is a slippery piece of work, so narrowly conceived that much of the time one hardly knows what to think -- or, for that matter, where the play is headed. (It has a rather unusual provenance. Davies is listed as the author, with a sub-credit noting that it was "developed" by Davies; Jocelyn Kuritsky, who plays Erika; and Tony Speciale, who directs.) This is true in spite of a number of powerful scenes. At the top of the play, Erika is presented as the toughest of customers; when Phil, her editor, pitches the story to her, she demurs, adding, "I'm just kind of raped out," adding that she's not interested in "feeding the Internet outrage machine." She is also quick to spot the slightest hint of sexism on the job, imagining her editors saying, "Hey, Erika just got back from Ferguson. Let's send her to talk to a bunch of sorority sisters." Then again, Phil frames it as a possible cover story, and off to college she goes.

Erika's expectations begin to be overturned when she interviews Ashley and gets a hair-raising account of the rape; making it a phone interview is a strategy that proves to be highly theatrical. (She was at a frat party, she got drunk, her date took her up to his room, and a group of guys waiting there each assaulted her.) Watching Erika take notes as she prods the information out of Ashley, who is clearly terrified of going public, is an uncommonly tense experience; with each slightly elongated pause, you wonder if Ashley isn't simply going to hang up. Next, she talks to Christina, the university's "project coordinator for sexual misconduct response and prevention." Christina is big on Take Back the Night rallies and getting counseling for rape victims, but she is much less interested in calling the police or following through with criminal prosecution. She thinks the girls have been violated enough and, too often, they undergo a grueling, traumatizing legal process only to see the attacker(s) get off. "The way I see it," she says, "reporting a rape to the authorities is an act of civil disobedience and not everybody wants to be Rosa Parks."

From here on in, as Erika becomes more and more committed to finishing the story no matter what, something strange happens: Even as individual scenes hit home, Stet loses dramatic momentum and a clear sense of direction. Christina tells her own rape story with eerie detachment. ("I met him in women's studies, actually.") When Phil threatens to kill the story, Erika tells him about her own grad student experience in which she got drunk, passed out, and woke up in her date's bed, unclear (as she is to this day) about what happened. Phil relents, and she immediately disowns the story as fiction. As soon as he exits, she bursts into tears.

By now it's obvious that Erika will do anything to get her story published -- except follow the basic rules of journalism. Not only does she not make the slightest attempt to track down the alleged perpetrators, no alarm bells go off when Ashley asks her to alter the article, saying, "Maybe you could make it smaller, like you could write about it and make it, you know, like a normal rape. Like say it was just one guy." She argues that she doesn't want to be defined by this incident for her entire life -- but, since Ashley's testimony is the sole basis for the article, such an attitude should be worrying, to say the least. (Among other things, it's never clear why Ashley, who has taken part in several Take Back the Night events, is suddenly worried about going public with her story.) It doesn't help that Lexi Lapp, who plays Ashley, gives such an opaque performance that it's difficult to tell if she is genuinely in anguish or playing Erika for reasons of her own.

In a way, Stet may be an attempt at redirecting the conversation, suggesting that this journalistic debacle-in-the-making is the result of a rapacious journalist, not an ulterior and dishonest young lady. (At the time, more than one commentator noted with despair that the scandal surrounding the Rolling Stone story took everyone's attention away from the fact that campus rape is a very real issue.) But too often, the script seems to draw no conclusions at all; even more frustrating is the fact that it ends at the very moment that questions are being raised about Erika's story. It seems unfair to attack Erika for her ethics when Stet, the script, indulges in more than a few manipulations of its own.

In any case, Speciale's production has a lot going for it, beginning with Kuritsky, whose Erika slips into a state of obsession by such tiny degrees that one can barely account for it. She is super-skilled at throwing away lines; even when sitting still, listening to Ashley's phone testimony, you feel that powerful emotions are at work. Déa Julien is first-rate as Christina, already at 24 a perfect little university administrator, her immensely capable manner covering a terrible emotional wound; especially memorable is her stunned reaction upon learning that the account of her rape has been reduced to two lines in Erika's story. Jack Fellows captures the natural blowhard tendencies of Connor, a student who is both a frat brother and a cofounder of One in Four, a rape awareness group, whose main goal appears to be steering Erika away from the fraternity. As Phil, who is one part confessor and one part sparring partner, Bruce McKenzie partners beautifully with Kuritsky. When she intimates that she will never be able to have his job because she is a woman, he responds with a brief, blistering account of life in an administrative trap, adding, "If you're me in twenty years, I'll be disappointed."

The production also benefits from Jo Winiarski's boardroom set, which neatly stands in for various locations, its frosted glass walls serving as screens for Katherine Freer's projections of news reports, interviews, and campus demonstrations; these and the long telephone scenes are given solid reinforcement by the sound designer, Christian Frederickson. Daisy Long's lighting neatly reframes the space as needed. Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes are smartly conceived for each character.

In the end, Stet suffers from comparisons to its source material. It's hard to get the UVA story, with all its bizarre details, out of one's mind. The situation it presents is too sketchy, too inconclusive to be satisfying. I keep thinking that what happens to Erika next is more interesting than what Davies has chosen to show us. -- David Barbour

(27 June 2016)

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