The Pére Entrapped 

Sexsting never quite explains the family man behind an online sexual predator.

John Doe (Paul Kiernan) is exactly the Everyman his name suggests. He is a good-hearted, hard-working schlub with the alienated family we expect from a contemporary fictionalized suburbanite. Oh, and he also likes to chat explicitly with underage girls online. Or at least he thinks they’re underage girls. One of them is FBI Special Agent Richard Roe (Peder Melhuse).

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This is the premise of Sexsting and, at least at first, it promises an intriguing character study. How does a mild-mannered citizen with a teen daughter of his own justify courting a 14-year-old girl online? How does this otherwise rational man struggle through this transformation from societal ideal to the worst of our zeitgeist monsters?

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While I applaud playwrights Doris Baizley and Susan Raffanti for taking a risk and giving us a sympathetic sexual predator, they seem too preoccupied by other thematic elements to bother addressing these fundamental issues of character'particularly as it is made clear that he’s not entirely innocent. We know that he has chatted sexually with young girls before. In the show’s rawest scene, we watch and listen while, as far as he knows, he does it again to the logical extreme.

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In the show’s program, Baizley writes that researching the play raised several questions for her: “Can a man be arrested for a fantasy? For an intention? … Where does legitimate law enforcement end and entrapment begin?” Interesting as these questions are, they require a firm foundation to play out against, which the poorly drawn main character John'and the resulting floundering performance by Kiernan'do not provide.

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Underscoring this lack of focus is the fact that the show overshoots at least two appropriate stopping points in order to give us still more perfunctory scenes meant to make us feel sorry for this man. Once, the entire audience even started to applaud, only to be treated to five more unnecessary minutes.

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That said, Sexsting has its bright points. It’s at its best during the chat scenes. The Internet was not meant to be staged, but director Anne Stewart Mark, set designer Kevin Myhre and lighting designer Jen Zornow manage to pull it off. John and Agent Roe quickly abandon the pretense of actually sitting at their computers to type but instead are free to wander their respective spaces with the casualness suggested by the word “chat.” The other chatroom regulars are used sparingly to set the mood, far upstage and disembodied behind the glare of a row of computer monitors displaying their chosen names. All of these elements are effective at bringing dramatic and narrative force to an inherently solitary activity.

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Peder Melhuse is excellent as recently divorced Agent Roe, particularly in those chat scenes. He deftly handles the character layers of a middle-age agent'bitter after his glory days of taking down organized crime, now reduced to passing for a sexually naïve girl. We watch him struggle as he identifies with and befriends his intended prey'depicted perfectly when the two men forget themselves for a moment and start talking about fishing. Colleen Baum also salvages her scenes with her triple-duty portrayal: as John’s wife, Valerie; as FBI Agent Flowers; and as 2young4U, a salty, older inhabitant of John’s online world. Mostly though, we see her pumping tons of authentic energy into Valerie Doe, an otherwise typically forgettable character more concerned with her rowing-machine regimen than with what her husband is doing on the computer all day.

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A show like this can’t be entirely successful if it leaves its audience questioning the motivations of the main character. Supporting performances can’t save a production with central flaws. Oh, and if you find yourself in a chat room with someone who claims to be a young girl, try to trip her up with trivia questions about the ’78 World Series, just to be on the safe side. You don’t know to whom you might be talking out there.

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SEXSTING
nSalt Lake Acting Company
n168 W. 500 North
nThrough Feb. 25
n363-SLAC

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About The Author

Rob Tennant

Bio:
Rob Tennant is a Salt Lake City freelance writer.

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