By Ruth Ross
On the heels of a poignant, powerful musical production of Parade, the American Theater Group has turned its sights on an all-too-pervasive problem of our highly technical world: the fact that one’s history—savory or un—lives on Google and social media forever and has the power to derail careers, romantic relationships and more, by virtue of its inability to be erased.
In Sharyn Rothstein’s timely and gripping comedic drama, Right to Be Forgotten, currently finishing a run at the JCC in West Orange and opening on June 15 in Basking Ridge, First Amendment rights butt heads with the Right to Privacy in the tale of 27-year-old Ph.D. student Derril Lark, whose over-the-top teenage infatuation with a female classmate 10 years before is available to anyone searching his name on the Internet, whether it be for a date, a job or character reference. (Above, right: Seth Clayton and Leela Bassuk)
Although it is Derril’s dilemma that sets the plot of The Right to Be Forgotten in motion, the conflict between his lawyer Marta Lee (played with chutzpah by Maria Jung) and her crafty one-time law school classmate—and sometime friend—Annie Zahirovic (played with the assurance and self-righteousness by Amanda Kristin Nichols), representing the tech giant contesting the case, powers the drama. Seeing Derril’s case as the “consumer relations issue of the time,” Jung’s Marta resorts to all sorts of shenanigans—even lying—to win, something only a lawyer with nothing to lose would do. With a confidence born from having a powerful Attorney General in her pocket (no spoilers here), Nichols’ Annie craftily embodies her nicknames, “Iron Annie” and “Silicon Valley’s secret weapon,” as the two spar over Derril’s quest to remove himself from the Internet forever, something available to European users but not to those in the United States. It’s worth noting that the riveting “showdown” scene—a verbal cat-fight—between the two women, reveals details from their pasts (especially Annie’s) and the influences that made them pursue different legal pathways. (Left, Clayton and Maria Jung)
For a taut 90 minutes, the two lawyers battle while the vulnerable, sometimes clueless Derril (well played by Seth Clayton) bears his scars nobly, even rejecting Marta’s suggestion that he change his name to disappear by stubbornly claiming his deceased parents and his family history. As Eve Selinsky, the young woman with whom Derril was infatuated and the object of his unwanted attention, Chelsie Sutherland is equally vulnerable, even as a 20-something teacher, until a secret of her own past is revealed. The two actors playing Derril’s current attraction Sarita Imari and politically savvy state Attorney General (now running for office) Alvaro Santos, Leela Bassuk and Zaven Ovian, provide solid support: she is delightfully adorable while he is calculating and callow. (Right: Zaven Ovian and Amanda Kristin Nichols)
Director Kathy Gail MacGowan masterfully elicits natural, convincing performances from the cast while scenes change rapidly, and props are carried on and off stage by the actors themselves. Yi-Hsuan “Ant” Ma’s spare set design allows for a myriad of venues while Douglas Macur’s lighting and projections evoke the tech world of coding and the Internet. Elena Vannoni’s varied costume design, appropriate to each character, further enhances the verisimilitude of the fraught situation.
Once again, American Theater Group has brought a very timely subject to the stage. Those of us who use the Internet often do not realize how much of ourselves we have given up by posting and how little we can do to erase any mention of them. Right to Be Forgotten is a play that won’t soon be forgotten; in the JCC lobby following the performance many theatergoers were involved in lively discussions of the play’s premise and its import for ordinary citizens of all ages who use the Internet every day, several times a day, on those little computers we hold in our hands: the cellphone.
That Right to Be Forgotten addresses this weighty problem with wit, sagacity and humanity is a testament to playwright Sharyn Rothstein’s intelligence and the American Theater Group’s polished professionalism.
Right to Be Forgotten will be performed June 15–18, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30pm at the Sieminski Theater, 800 Fellowship Road, in Basking Ridge. To purchase tickets, click HERE.