In Doris Baizley's new play "SexSting," a West Coast premiere by the Katselas Theatre Company, a 14-year-old girl shows up in a chat room. JohnnyD (JD Cullum), a 46-year-old regular, salaciously homes in on the girl, unaware that he's actually hitting on grizzled FBI agent Richard Roe (Gregory Itzin).
The audience knows: We see the two men at their desks, saying their messages aloud as they pretend to type them. When Itzin, known as President Charles Logan on TV's "24," solemnly speaks in text-ese ("sad face"), the discrepancy is amusing, while Cullum wears a suitably creepy leer.
Still I couldn't help protesting to myself, maybe unsportingly, that people seldom say aloud what they're typing. Also, the affectlessness that contributes to the weird allure of cyber-flirtation doesn't lend itself to dramatic dialogue.
Fans may claim that they'd listen to great actors read the phone book, but whether they'd listen to them read chat room exchanges is an open question. There's only so much character development an LOL, or even a ROFL or an OMG, can accomplish.
Watching two men type in silence would be worse, of course, and the dramatic strategy used here might work in a smaller dose. Baizley wrote "SexSting" in collaboration with criminal defense attorney Susan Raffanti, who provided sheaves of actual exchanges between men and FBI agents posing as young girls. Baizley was obviously struck by how closely the agents' pursuit skirted entrapment.
In the play, although JohnnyD comes on strong with Sandi, he soon turns avuncular, brushing off her invitations to meet. Meanwhile, Roe's boss (Christian Lyon) is all over him to get JohnnyD onto a plane with a suitcase full of condoms.
Roe, who apparently has no other cases or friends, may secretly sympathize with, even like, his mark. (I worried that at the bust they'd embrace, perhaps quoting Baudelaire: "Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!")
Baizley's dramatic impulses are sure, but although the source material must have made gripping reading the play is still too dependent on it, and even under Jim Holmes' game direction, the chat room exchanges are slow and stilted, while the other scenes feel tacked on.
"SexSting." The Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont, L.A. 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 31. $30-$34. (702) 582-8587 or www.katselastheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.