Review: Right to Be Forgotten at Raven Theatre Tells a Compelling Human Story But Neglects the Backstory

“. . .  in the real world, when a minor commits a crime, his record is sealed. When a businessman fails, he can claim bankruptcy and start over. But on the internet, there is no starting over, because there is no forgetting.” That’s the argument by Derril, who desperately wants to be forgotten, to disappear from the internet.

Right to Be Forgotten is a compelling story of how life was changed for a young man who did something stupid when he was 17. Ten years later, stories of those acts, both true and embellished, and comments upon them, are all over the internet. They affect his entire life and his future as he finishes a Ph.D. in literature and looks forward to a teaching career. The play by Sharyn Rothstein is now at Raven Theatre in a smartly staged production directed by Sarah Gitenstein. 

The hashtag #lurkingLark is everywhere.

As a high school student, Derril Lark (Adam Shalzi) developed a crush on a fellow student and followed her around for months—to try to get her to pay attention to him, he said. He describes it as “following” because he knows that “stalking” implies the intention to commit violence. What Derril didn’t consider at the time, and seems to have forgotten now, is the other side of that story—how his actions affected Eve (Jamila Tyler), the girl he thought he loved. Eventually he finds that out.

Susaan Jamshidi (Marta) and Lucy Carapetyan (Annie). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Derril becomes desperate to take action after he meets Sarita (Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez) on an informal date; they sort of click. He realizes his past, which she’ll learn about when she Googles him, will end any chance they have for a relationship. He decides to take legal action to get his internet record expunged. 

Enter feisty lawyer Marta Lee (Susaan Jamshidi), who takes on pro bono cases like Derril’s and is ready to go to war with Big Tech. 

Marta seeks support for her cause from sympathetic state attorney general Alvaro Santos (Kroydell Galima). But Marta soon realizes that a barrier to success will be her old friend Annie (Lucy Carapetyan), now a lawyer with a powerful firm that works for Big Tech companies. 

Right to Be Forgotten is an engrossing story and Gitenstein’s direction fulfills the playwright’s story. Adam Shalzi’s performance is particularly strong; he’s totally believable as the young man who repeatedly corrects everyone who calls him a stalker. 

Staging on Raven’s new Johnson Stage works well. The large open stage is bounded by screens on which social media conversations are projected throughout the play. Minimal furniture is carried on stage by cast or crew as needed. Scenic design is by Jeffrey D. Kmiec and projection design by Reese Craig and Liviu Pasare. Lighting is by Liz Gomez, music and sound design by Eric Backus. Costumes are by Finnegan Chu.

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

When I got home from seeing Right to Be Forgotten on opening night, I doodled in my notebook for a while trying to decipher my semi-legible notes. I was bothered by something. This play was the kind of drama I appreciate and the dialogue, direction and performances were very good, but there was something off about the play. 

The issue is structural; the play only looks at the human or interior side of the story. It almost entirely ignores—and makes no effort to explain—the exterior setting. What is the environment—the lack of laws and regulation—that allow Derril’s life to be destroyed by something he did as a thoughtless teenager? Right to Be Forgotten is not a legal procedural, I realize, so you could argue that there’s no reason for the play to do that (although I will disagree with you). But it seemed to me a huge flaw not to consider the actual legal implications—and to take the opportunity to help the audience understand why there is no “right to be forgotten" for Derril. Oh sure, there are a few comments about free speech rights, the Communications Decency Act,­ and the European Union’s right-to-be-forgotten law—but they are not explored or defined at all. I believe the audience would more fully appreciate the play if they understood the legal strictures that affect Marta and Derril’s effort.

Some theaters use lobby displays to explore the backstory of the play the audience will be seeing. Others include a page of definitions or explanation of issues that underlie the story. Raven Theatre does neither. Even though the playwright omits these insights from her script, the theater company could add them. (I’m sure a law firm or an organization like the ACLU would have been happy to advise.)

The audience might benefit by knowing there is no regulation of the major tech companies that host our favorite social media platforms. Section 230 of the horribly named Communications Decency Act of 1996 “provides immunity for website platforms with respect to third-party content.” In other words, social media have no responsibility for what users post. They are treated as common carriers in this regard.

What are the First Amendment barriers to a right to be forgotten? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government, and by the concept of incorporation,  state governments as well, from abridging freedom of speech. But mega-corporations are not covered by the First Amendment. So would a right to be forgotten—to have your comments deleted without your permission from a massive database like Twitter or Instagram—inhibit your First Amendment rights? No, it wouldn’t—but you could argue that it would impact your freedom of speech. Research shows that most Americans believe that we have a right to be forgotten. But the conflict between free speech and the right to privacy is the trickiest aspect of any potential RTBF law.  

Right to Be Forgotten at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., has been extended through April 2 with performances Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $40 with $15 tickets available for students, active military and veterans. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Masks are required while you are in the theater building. 

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.