Don't Think of the Children 

UK play gives the unimaginable a human face.

With some "issue plays" you can argue that the script deals with this or that hot-button topic, but that's not really what it's about. Not so with Stephen Brown's Future Me, which premiered at London's Theatre503 last year and is currently being given its US debut by TheatreFIRST at the Berkeley City Club. Like its fellow UK export Blackbird that played American Conservatory Theater a year ago, Future Me is about the question of whether a pedophile can ever move on and build a productive life after release from prison.

Dana Jepsen plays Peter, a lawyer whose seemingly happy life falls apart when he accidentally sends kiddie porn to everyone in his e-mail address book. His tech-savvy brother whom he asks to wipe his hard drive instead turns it over to the authorities, and the next thing we know Peter's in the slammer, where the only people he meets are other pedophiles and the support-group leader who struggles to prepare them for life outside. That's where the title comes in, as she tries to help then move past the terrible things they've done and focus on developing their "future me."

Even when Peter seems relatively content, Jepsen conveys that it's always with a palpable sense of effort. Peter's trying really, really hard to make things as close to okay as he can, all things considered. Ultimately that haunted earnestness is more heartbreaking than the tense moments when you fear he might backslide. The way Jepsen's eyes dart from side to side whenever Peter talks about what he's done registers more as an actor's choice the more he does it, but it's still downright creepy, as is the childlike smile that begins to creep over the corners of his mouth as he reminisces.

Maggie Mason is bewitching in the couple of scenes in which Peter's girlfriend Jenny is at ease, self-assured, and playful, but when Jenny retreats inward, her habit of cradling herself with crossed arms grows repetitive, and her flashes of anger aren't particularly convincing. Still, a scene in which journalist Jenny interviews Peter about what he's done for an ill-conceived article is effectively excruciating, between his disarming forthrightness and her obvious discomfort.

Ryan Purcell is sympathetic if seldom seen as brother Mike and clownishly boisterous as support-group troublemaker Patrick. Allison Studdiford's therapist Ellen seems stiff even for someone who's supposed to play her cards close to her chest.

Fellow prisoners represent roads Peter must be careful not to take. Dana Kelly's working-class Harry is a friendly bloke for a serial child molester (or "nonce" in British slang), but he's also so tentative, constantly squinting with indecision, that he's in obvious risk of recidivism. Peter Ruocco is especially chilling as Tim, a self-styled pedophilia evangelist who counsels his fellow inmates to resist brainwashing, propaganda, and self-hatred. Ruocco beautifully captures the bright eyes of a true believer and the mephistophelian smirk of someone who thrives on debate for its own sake but won't allow himself to truly consider the opposing point of view.

The functional elements of Wesley Cabral's set are just a wood table and two matching benches, but the stage area is surrounded with posters or magazine ads depicting child models hanging from the ceiling and two large charcoal drawings of somber little girls perched in corners of the room. Jeremy Cole's costumes nicely delineate class and mood as Peter goes from snappy suits to jeans, and Steven Klems' sound design keeps the mood tense with suspenseful music laced with noises like old modem screeching between the many short scenes broken up to mark the passing of time.

On the whole the play's well written and nicely staged by director Dylan Russell, despite some clunky devices such as a pseudo-montage scene in triptych. After a while, however, it starts to feel as if Brown's trying to cover all sides of the issue in a textbook manner, especially when he starts exploring why a psychologist chooses to work with sexual predators.

What's unclear in the play is how Peter's e-mailed child pornography led to charges for the graver crime of actually having sex with a preteen. Was it his own picture that directly implicated or depicted him in sex acts with a minor? Also unclear is how he managed to accidentally send the photo to his entire address book. Was he trying to send it to an unmentioned fellow kiddie-porn aficionado online, or perhaps trying to send a picture of an adorable kitten to everybody he knows?

Brown is more concerned with carefully explaining how pedophiles think than he is with niggling plot details. His play stays very much on topic, which isn't law or police procedure. But the way it puts a human face on the monsters we like to think of as entirely unlike us and makes the unimaginable chillingly comprehensible will just have to do, for the nonce. 

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