Friday, June 24, 2016

31. Review: STET (seen June 22, 2016)

"When the Messenger Is the Story"
Stars range from 5-1.
Campus rape, said to have reached “epidemic proportions,” may be a major subject du jour but few plays have tackled it head on. Among the rare examples prior to Kim Davies’s noteworthy but ultimately unfulfilling Stet, now at the Abingdon Theatre Company, is Paul Downs Colaizzo's Really, Really, seen at the Lortel in 2013, and Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids, which thus far has been shown only on college campuses. The latter is based on an actual case that took place at Steubenville High School in 2012, which also was dramatized as a Lifetime TV movie; Stet is likewise advertised as “being based on a true story,” although the specifics of where or when (University of Virginia, 2014) are never mentioned.

Jocelyn Kuritsky, Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
On the one hand, that might not matter, as the assault in the play that inspires a magazine’s investigative reporter to write about it could have occurred at Anywhere University, USA. On the other, director Tony Speciale (who’s credited with having “developed” the play with Davies and actress Jocelyn Kuritsky) notes in the program that Stet’s principal inspiration was a highly controversial Rolling Stone article (by the unmentioned Sabrina Erdely) called “A Rape on Campus,” which turned out to be so seriously flawed that the magazine had to retract it.

This information, which not all playgoers may recall (or read in the program), puts the play in another light entirely. Without it, you may disagree with the ambitious, ethically-challenged reporter’s inappropriate methods (such as keeping her recorder on when she says she’s turned it off), and quarrel with her unprofessional investigating (like failing to interview the alleged rapists) but you’ll likely sympathize. at first, with her desire to examine the effects on a rape victim of her horrendous experience.
Jocelyn Kuritsky, Jack Fellows. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
While many issues related to campus rape are expressed in Stet (editorial lingo for “let it stand” as a note to retain writing that has been revised or deleted), including the bureaucratic obstructions with which victims must contend, the play offers little new or illuminating about the topic; it’s really about journalistic ethics, and might have been more powerful if that aspect, including its aftermath, were more explicitly dramatized and discussed. A treatment of the far-reaching implications of bad reporting on an issue of such sensitivity would be of potentially greater value than a dramatization of the circumstances surrounding an alleged but unverified rape. 

Stet isn’t a docudrama so much as a depiction of how difficult it is to determine the truth and of the undue trust we often place in the hands of those who write about it. But beyond that is the problem of what to do about a reporter who, realizing she's probably been fooled, goes ahead with her story regardless. And what is the impact on the entire issue of campus rape of such a sensationalized but doubtful accusation? You won't find the answers in Stet.
Dea Julien. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
In brief, Erika (Kuritsky), assigned by her editor, Phil (Bruce McKenzie), to write about the effects on a victim of a campus rape, chooses as her subject a girl named Ashley (Lexi Lapp) after Erika and Phil hear her claiming on a Take Back the Night video that she was gang raped during a fraternity party by seven frat brothers. Ashley, however, is reluctant to move forward, even refusing to name the perpetrators. Erika also speaks to Christina (Déa Julien), the college’s 23-year-old “project coordinator for sexual misconduct response and prevention,” herself claiming to be a rape victim, and Connor (Jack Fellows), the boisterously effusive frat VP who also happens to be co-founder of the school's One in Four chapter, the anti-sexual assault group.
Jocelyn Kuritsky, Lexi Lapp. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
These interviews offer insights into campus attitudes toward frat parties, drinking, and sex, and reveal Erika and Phil’s lack of interest in the kind of conventional and all-too-common stories (like Christine’s) about innocent girls getting drunk and being taken advantage of; they're after the bigger journalistic game of seven at one blow represented by Ashley’s experience. 
Lexi Lapp, Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
We also discover the insidious thoughts on college sex and drinking held by Phil, who appears to have no idea of how much of what he smugly thinks of as his own innocuous frat boy memories resemble what now are recognized as rapes. Ultimately, Ashley tries to backtrack but, as my theatre companion later put it in an e-mail, Erika, about to be interviewed on national TV, “is too far along to cancel . . . , and is invested in her own fame and fortune by this point, so she has to STET the false story.” Actually, the falsity of the story, while hinted at, is never firmly established, which still doesn't exonerate Erika from publishing her flimsily researched account.
Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Speciale’s not-too-special production occurs entirely in a modern, boardroom-like setting, designed by Jo Winiarski and lit by Daisy Long, regardless of whether we’re at the magazine, in a college office, a college bar, etc. Katherine Freer has created an abundance of excellent video and still projections that help contextualize the events. The tone and pacing are, for the most part, quietly naturalistic; this, though, creates a draggy, talky, sleepy atmosphere until Jack Fellows makes his entrance. Suddenly, the stage lights up in the presence of stage magnetism—a hunky young actor in the Brendan Fraser mold with a powerful voice who knows how to make each of his frat boy lines bounce with collegiate attitude and irony. 
Jack Fellows, Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Déas does a nice job with the sincere, young college official, especially when she shows her vulnerability about  having her own story overlooked; Lapp is suitably anxious about having Ashley’s story publicized; and McKenzie brings a laid-back quietness to Phil that looks and sounds real but lapses into dullness.

Kuritsky, seeking a role for herself as the reporter, brought the idea for the play to Speciale, the Abingdon’s artistic director, who, in turn, invited Davies to write it. The wiry, pencil-thin actress, her hair cut like a boy’s, brings intelligence and spirit to Erika but it's anybody's guess as to why costumer Hunter Kaczorowski dresses her to look like the androgynous lead singer of a rock band. A wink at Rolling Stone?.


Abingdon Theatre Company

312 W. 36th Street, NYC
Through July 3

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