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The human brain can only preserve events for so long before forgetfulness takes hold or people die, taking their memories with them. With the invention of writing, history was born, and events could be remembered so long as the clay tablets, papyrus, vellum, paper, or microfiche could be found. In this era, old news articles, blog posts, and social media feeds can persist in perpetuity without any scholarly apparatus sorting the accurate from the spurious, the important from the irrelevant.
Sharyn Rothstein’s Right to Be Forgotten, now making its world premiere at Arena Stage, opens with Sarita Imari (Shubhangi Kuchibhotla) on a coffee date. She likes the guy (John Austin). Then, he reveals that his name is not “Arthur Rimbaud” but Derril Lark, and that if she were to Google his name, she would find a blog that recounts how a decade prior, as an awkward 17-year-old, he misinterpreted his classmate Eve Selinsky’s (Guadalupe Campos) willingness to stand up against his bullies as a romantic connection. He thought he was “besotted;” she thought he was a stalker. Despite stopping the moment adults told him to, his name persists as a meme attached to things he’s never done and places he’s never been.
In the European Union, courts and parliaments have adopted a “right to be forgotten,” a way for the rehabilitated and exonerated to recover their reputations by having stories delisted from search engines. In the United States, though some news agencies consider petitions to scrub their online archives of personal identifiers, the First Amendment is interpreted as denying the right to be forgotten.
Attorney Marta Lee (Melody Butiu) sees the potential to advance the cause for this right and takes Derril’s case, involving her in drama with Silicon Valley lobbyist Annie Zahirovic (Rachel Felstein) and State Attorney General Alvaro Santos (Edward O’Blenis). There’s nothing like a lobbyist, an AG, and public advocate to flatter District audiences.
Like many new plays that are developed at the nation’s better-funded, world-premiere fetishizing theaters, Right to be Forgotten shows evidence that it was scheduled before there was a script. Despite a handful of zingers, Rothstein’s script is didactic and possesses the generic dialogue and characterization of a televised legal drama. Rothstein has written or co-written 10 episodes of USA Network’s Suits and one can’t help but wonder if this play did not originate as a pitch to the showrunners.
The characters’ backstories, for example, are weirdly inconsequential: Only Eve’s work as a middle school art teacher seems to inform her actions in this drama. Annie’s family fled from Sarajevo to America when she was 10, but is her family Bosniak, Croat, Serb, Jewish, or mixed? We only know that one of her similarly resettled neighbors in Utica, New York, was extradited for war crimes after he was discovered to have concealed his membership in a Serbian militia. Given the actual case history of the right to be forgotten in Europe, it seems hyperbolically insincere that this forms the basis for her opposition. Likewise, Derril’s Ph.D. candidacy in literature seems mostly an indulgence to Arena dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke’s enthusiasm for Russian poets who were persecuted under the Soviets. (Derril quotes Osip Mandelstam, while in last year’s Kleptocracy Vladimir Putin was an aficionado of Daniil Kharms.) Neither the terrors of Joseph Stalin nor Radovan Karadžić (both poets) are tied to the plot in a meaningful way.
Though the dialogue repeatedly refers to her as “weird,” Sarita never develops beyond a stock love interest. Her only eccentricity is the habit of vocalizing her otherwise banal internal monologues about confused feelings. Ivania Stack’s costumes provide some of the characterization that the script fails to do, clothing Sarita in a colorful, multi-patterned wardrobe. Marta, meanwhile, dons a collection of jackets that are as idiosyncratic as court appearances allow.
Paige Hathaway’s set design, a minimalist architecture of white squares, rectangles, and cubes that contrast to the basket-weave back wall of Arena’s Kogod Cradle, provides a glorious set of surfaces, both flat and curved, for Shawn Duan’s projections. A balcony ledge becomes a search bar or a tweet. Eve’s art room becomes a colorful display of student work. Trees are fragmented into high-and-low-resolution images, while the audience is immersed in an undulating flow of ones-and-zeros, code, and hashtags to the accompaniment of Andre Pluess’ old-school electronic score of bleeps, bloops, and arpeggio loops.
Those design elements are nice, but they can’t salvage Rothstein’s work. Under the First Amendment, American audiences do not have the right to better plays.
1101 6th St. SW. $40–$95. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.