Sexsting: Theater Review

Gregory Itzin JD Cullum Sexting - H 2013
Ed Krieger
Riveting drama of FBI agent’s online wooing of potential sex offender fills static situation with menace, suspense and pathos. 

The drama follows a cat-and-mouse game behind an FBI sting operation to catch a possible pedophile.

Is it irretrievably “old school” to find something innately creepy about Internet intimacy? In the anonymity of the chat room of 2006-2007, no one need be what he seems, and everyone both knows and yet denies that. The federal agent (Gregory Itzin) trolls for unwary suspects by posing as a 14-year-old girl (“Sandybythesea”) and hooks up with unsuspecting, lonely, middle-aged and married “JohnnyD” (JD Cullum), pathetically eager for any simulacrum of connection.

Over many months, under constant pressure from his superior (Christian Lyon) to produce an offense, and so an arrest, the investigator impersonates a needy, vulnerable child, manipulating his own immature target into a statutory crime comprised of evidence of intent plus an overt act in furtherance of a predilection to implement that intent. In short, a government-incited felony in which the purported victim (and transgression) may be fictitious, but the fate of the convicted is not. He may be guilty under the law, but he was transparently, appallingly sincere.

Two middle-aged men verbalizing their typing at computers may be the antithesis of a dramatic action, but playwright Doris Baizley (in collaboration with former defense attorney Susan Raffanti, who provided real-life models for the online exchanges) invests their interplay with acute psychological observation, reminiscent of Porfiry and Raskolnikov -- with, if anything, far more intense moral ambiguity. The FBI assumption is that they are netting bad guys who will offend against countless innocents unless ensnared, and their rectitude is sorely contradicted by the prosecutorial zeal with which the end is justified by any means.

One can view state-manufactured crimes with innate suspicion (remember that Martha Stewart was convicted for obstructing an investigation into a crime for which she was never charged for lack of evidence). But the defense of entrapment is legally very narrow, and rarely possible to sustain. There is no question here that the hapless sleaze was pushed into action despite his reluctant demurrals, yet still he did show up at the airport with condoms in his baggage.

But Sexsting never feels didactic, and at least no more than do emails or texts, because its dramatic momentum never flags. Itzin (a multiple Emmy nominee for 24) and Cullum are long-standing pillars of the local theatrical community, and here they perform at the top of their considerable game, finding classical dimensions within their pathetically ordinary, alienated men.

Director Jim Holmes finds many inventive stratagems (including effective yet unobtrusive use of projections and a raucous mocking Greek-style chorus of chat room impersonators) to propel the relationship forward, emphasizing the commonalities between the two men as they simultaneously enact their roles as both hunter and prey. The ironies may not be subtle, but they are earned, and the touching notes of mutual friendship and exploitation are not sentimental. They matter acutely.

Venue: Skylight Theatre (runs through March 31)

Cast: Gregory Itzin, JD Cullum, Christian Lyon, Bonnie Brewster, Danielle Gavaldon, Wolfie Trausch

Director: Jim Holmes

Playwright: Doris Baizley in collaboration with Susan Raffanti

Producer: Gary Grossman, a presentation of Katselas Theatre Company

Set & lighting designer: Jeff McLaughlin

Sound designer: Chris Moscatellio