Steven Sabel

Steven Sabel

Will Sexsting “˜Entrap’ Its Audiences?

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Christian Lyon and Gregory Itzin in "Sexsting." Photo by Ed Krieger.

When playwright Doris Baizley first contacted Oakland criminal defense attorney Susan Raffanti about some legal research on a play she was writing, neither woman could have known their collaboration would result in the opening of a new play more than 10 years later. Baizley called Raffanti on the suggestion of a friend who was sure Raffanti could lead Baizley to the legal answers she was seeking. Instead, Raffanti led Baizley to another project, and Sexsting was born.

Doris Baizley and Susan Raffanti.

Its West Coast premiere opens Saturday at the Skylight Theatre, under the direction of Jim Holmes.

Sexsting explores the details behind federal agents posing as teenage girls in online chat rooms in order to lure potential predators into a sting operation aimed at arresting pedophiles. It tells the story of an FBI agent (Gregory Itzin) and his online chat room prey (JD Cullum), who engage in a months-long internet relationship before the agent can finally lure his target into the sting.

“The relationship between the two men is such an important part of the story,” says Baizley.

The story line was first suggested by Raffanti, whose experience included working on a case that led to the interviewing of an actual agent involved in an online sting.

“By that point I had come to know my client pretty well, and I was struck by how much these two men were alike — in age, in backgrounds, and in the sort of social awkwardness they both seemed to share,” Raffanti says.

Raffanti was further intrigued by the aspect of one middle-aged man posing as a teenage girl in order to attract another middle-aged man who was so similar to him in so many ways.

Gregory Itzin and Bonnie Brewster.

“I said, “˜This thing would make a great movie,’” and she encouraged Baizley to write the script, says Raffanti.

Initially she sent Baizley a few transcripts from some actual cases. Eventually Raffanti provided more than 200 pages of transcripts from actual online communication between agents and their targets.

“The absolute first thing that hit me was that it looked like a 200-page David Mamet play,” says Baizley.

Most of the transcripts were basically in dialogue form through instant messaging records. “It was very flat, but under the surface there was so much more going on,” Baizley says.

As she continued to study the source material, she found multiple threads of intrigue, as well as the use of many terms in the legal pages that sparked her instinct as a playwright — trigger, character, intention. Slowly she narrowed down the material to three or four basic cases from which she built her central characters, she says.

When the Guthrie Theater and the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis sponsored a contest for plays written in collaboration between a playwright and someone from outside the theater, Baizley and Raffanti entered The Two Headed Challenge. Sexsting won.

In its original format, which was produced in Salt Lake City in 2007, the play called for a larger cast, in anattempt to more fully demonstrate the back story of the characters. In the new version, produced through the Katselas Theatre Company’s INKubator program, Baizley has pared the story to its essential elements, she says. Alongside the two leads, four additional cast members play seven supporting roles.

Gregory Itzin, Wollfie Trausch, Bonnie Brewster, Danielle Gavaldon and JD Cullum.

“The earlier version got away from the original questions, so I edited it down and down. My original concept was two middle-aged white guys sitting in the dark. I wanted to let their relationship play out as long as it can. Then I decided the need for creating the cyber world they live in,” says Baizley of the current version.

The action of the play demonstrates the FBI agent plotting his seduction of his prey. The creation of a fictional 14-year-old girl with emotional troubles and a vulnerable back story is the first step of the process. The agent then begins placing baited posts in online chat rooms hoping to engage a potential predator in a conversation. As the responses come in, the agent attempts to lure the respondents into a private instant message communication, where he continues to post messages designed to instigate sexual overtones. Once the target bites with comments or questions about sex, the agent begins to lure the target into an agreement to meet.

“It really raises the question of the difference between what is justice and what is entrapment. It’s a huge grey area,” Baizley says. “Where is the fine line between entrapment and real law enforcement?”

Raffanti’s view is more black and white. “I see it through the eyes of a defense attorney. The root of the story has always been: who’s the predator, who’s the prey?”

Though there are not nearly as many similar cases filed today, says Raffanti, she describes a period of time, about a decade ago, when “hysteria” directed huge federal resources at mounting online sting operations. As in the story depicted in the play, it was not uncommon for agents to engage in zealous attempts to seduce their targets, or for targets to back out of early arranged meetings before finally committing to meet the fantasy girl on the other side of the keyboard.

Wolfie Trausch and JD Cullum.

“If somebody didn’t jump to it right away, they were willing to take a few months to lure them in,” she says.

Raffanti says advancements in technology have changed the game from what it once was, but that the early advent of the internet created circumstances ripe for the problem to present itself.

“The technology was new then. The internet basically introduced shy, awkward people, who wouldn’t go out of their houses, much less go out to do these things — but behind that computer, they can act out the fantasy of being a different person,” she says.

Pointing to loneliness and isolation as contributing factors, she says that many of the defendants got caught up in the fantasy but never touched or hurt a child — and were sent to jail.

“Many of them get caught up in this fantasy type of thing out of loneliness mostly. It’s very tragic,” says Raffanti.

Baizley declares that the loneliness exists on both sides of the exchange. The similarities between the agents and their targets are uncanny, she says, and the circumstances that compel these men to go so deeply into the fantasies they are creating are unsettling. The stories of men on either side of the internet, both pretending to be teenage girls in order to ensnare one another, made her “more skeptical about the process when people get caught in these types of stings.”

“It really challenges our assumptions of who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy,” Baizley says.

Gregory Itzin and Danielle Gavaldon.

But it doesn’t end there. In her research she learned that once a target is arrested, the FBI gains access to any and all other user names with whom the target has engaged  in online communications. They then track those user names to the actual people behind the log-ins to interview them as potential witnesses. Baizley was startled to learn that two-thirds of them are adults — men and women — pretending to be teenage girls.

“It raises the question of identity on the internet,” she says.

The easy access to anonymity is a big part of the problem, says Raffanti. “I hope this play shows how loneliness and isolation, combined with the ease of a fantasy world, created criminals out of people who wouldn’t have otherwise been a criminal.”

Baizley declares that the audience’s ability to feel empathy and compassion for the characters is a crucial part of the strength of the impact of the play. “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling,” she adds.

She hopes the audience discomfort will promote discussion on the issues raised by the work. After the performance on Friday, March 1, Baizley and Raffanti will lead a discussion with audience members about the play. Baizley hopes for further discussions to be held after other Friday night performances, and she is seeking lawyers in the Los Angeles area who specialize in these cases to participate in the discussions.

“After the first reading of the play, we held a discussion, and there was a guy in the audience who spoke out,” she says, quoting the man: “This play made me so uncomfortable that I’m sweating.”

Sexsting, Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles 90027. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through April 14. Tickets: $30 – $34. www.katselastheatre.com. 702-582-8587.

**All Sexsting production photos by Ed Krieger.

Steven Sabel has 12 years experience as a journalist and editor. He is also the founding artistic director of the Redlands Shakespeare Festival, and managing artistic director of the Archway Theatre in the DTLA Arts District.

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