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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 23, 2016

Jocelyn Kuritsky and Lexi Lapp
Photo by Ben Strothmann

For a play that contains absolutely no blood or gore, Stet, which was written by Kim Davies and is now receiving its world premiere at the Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre, contains mind-blowing acts of violation. Literal rape, yes, but also desecration of the elite journalistic mindset, the patriarchal culture of college campuses, and the very notions of safety and justice in an uncertain world. So intently and totally has Davies focused her laser-like gaze and withering pen on these subjects that it's astonishing—and more than a little disappointing—she has left perhaps the most important, if also the least convenient, untouched.

You can't have everything, of course, but for much of Stet's 85-minute running time Davies and her director, Tony Speciale, are determined to try. They waste not a second establishing the blighted America against which the tale is to unfold: that of, roughly, our present time. Yet the treatment doled out (by men) and received (by women) threatens to recall an earlier and less-friendly age, at least as established immediately by Phil (Bruce McKenzie) and Erika (Jocelyn Kuritsky). He's the editor at a major national magazine, she's a staff writer who's never had a cover feature. They're discussing tackling the issue of rape on university campuses, but Erika, to Phil's chagrin, is not interested in taking the easy way out.

"I just think—the whole campus rape thing has already had a lot of coverage," she says. "Either you take the hyper-feminist angle or you take the super-conservative angle, and it's like there's no middle ground, you know?"

They eventually happen on an angle that satisfies them both: what it's like moving on after experiencing such a horrific crime. A "Take Back the Night" video leads her to Ashley (Lexi Lapp), who explains she's been victimized several ways: first by seven fraternity brothers upstairs at a house party, then by the college administrators themselves, who demand Ashley make reports she's afraid will only expose her to more ridicule and attacks of all kind. Ashley seems to be the perfect linchpin for an exposé that could improve the treatment of women throughout the country and give them the power they're too often denied. And once faced with an assignment this juicy, Erika herself transforms into someone who's just as willing to do anything—and use anyone—to get what she wants.

Jocelyn Kuritsky and Bruce McKenzie
Photo by Ben Strothmann

That's what drives most of its second half: Erika becomes desperate, duplicitous, and calculating to refashion her world to her liking, manipulating everyone from Phil to Christina (Déa Julien), a "project coordinator for sexual misconduct and prevention" at the school who has her own unfulfilled dreams of relevancy, and Connor (Jack Fellows), the vice president of the frat whose members Ashley has accused. Though Speciale's staging is fine, if restrained, on Jo Winiarski's ultramodern conference room set and as accented by Katherine Freer's vibrant projections, and the performances solid, particularly from McKenzie as the blithely offensive and patronizing Phil and Julien as the constantly-on-edge Christina, it's Kuritsky's fiery tenacity and the pulse-stopping intensity with which she pairs it that fuel the evening and that makes so many of the scenes such riveting deconstructions of public shame and personal animus.

No, the problem with Stet isn't what it contains—it's what it lacks. Davies has based nearly every critical detail of Ashley's case on the November 2014 Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus," right down to the shattered glass table that provides the unfortunate backdrop for the deed. She has, however, left out the most interesting part of story: how nearly none of what the victim, the pseudonymous "Jackie," said checked out; how mounting amounts of evidence suggested that Jackie had constructed an elaborate lie to recapture and exact revenge on a young man who'd scorned her; and how the piece's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who had an established history of writing similarly sensationalistic stories, increasingly appeared to be more interested in forwarding a narrative than reporting facts. Rolling Stone retracted the story in April of 2015, and lawsuits are, unsurprisingly, still pending.

These events made "A Rape on Campus" so explosive (for however brief a period of time) for the same reason Davies's Erika and Phil are drawn to Ashley's struggle: they were original, and gave voice to those who are rarely allowed genuine expression. But their being fictional damaged the cause they were working to aid. By avoiding the aftermath (we are clearly meant to infer that Ashley's rape genuinely happened), Davies makes her message far less captivating. We already know rape is bad, that the genders are too often treated differently, that journalists become bloodthirsty when they get fame in their sights. By not taking the next step and addressing the question the real world delivered on a silver platter—what happens when the focal point of a social-justice cause célèbre does to her champions what she claimed men did to her?—the result is a lifeless tribute to a person who already has all our sympathy and thus has nothing to teach us or any additional way to get us to emotionally engage.

We're not allowed to take part in the drama and the discovery; the only unknown is whether Erika will get away with what she's doing, and once she establishes the tactics she's willing to use, there's not even any doubt about that. Loving the innocent girl and hissing the entitled jock might be good enough for a melodrama, but it's not enlightening or moving itself. We need to glimpse the souls beneath the stereotypes, the beings who thrive on shades-of-grey complexity, if we're to reward anyone with our deepest feelings. In Stet, there are no people other than Erika: just objects to be pushed around to make all-too-familiar points. That cheapens the victims in a different, but no less real way, and pushes us further from truly understanding how and why sex, especially in its most brutal form, is a weapon men and women alike can wield with terrifying facility.

Through July 3
June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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