New play looks for dark humor beneath the Sarah Lawrence sex cult ordeal
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New play looks for dark humor beneath the Sarah Lawrence sex cult ordeal
From left, the cast of “Runts,” Carson Marie Earnest, Arianna Wellmoney, Jack Coggins, Chelsea Clark, and Louis Rocky Bacigalupo, during a rehearsal for the upcoming off-off Broadway play based on the Sarah Lawrence sex cult, in Manhattan on May 2, 2024. The production’s boosters call it a play that creates empathy for those who were manipulated at Sarah Lawrence College. (James Estrin/The New York Times)

by Corey Kilgannon

NEW YORK, NY.- Carson Marie Earnest, a New York City actress, recently came across a casting call for a “darkly funny, cautionary play in two acts, based on the true story of Larry Ray and the ‘sex cult’ at Sarah Lawrence College.”

“Oh, my gosh, I know this story,” thought Earnest, who several years earlier had been shocked when the news broke in 2019 just as she was set to graduate from the school just north of the city.

“Everyone was talking about it,” Earnest said.

She soon learned that a writing teacher at Sarah Lawrence, Melvin Jules Bukiet, had written the play with one of his former students, Finnegan Shepard.

“The circumstances were intrinsically dramatic,” Bukiet said. “It just felt like it wanted to be on a stage.”

And so “Runts” will open Monday at the Teatro Latea on the Lower East Side as part of the New York Theater Festival.

Bukiet called the play “loosely based” on reality: It is set at a verdant liberal arts college near New York City, and the plot largely mirrors how Ray moved into his daughter’s dorm and then took over her suitemates’ lives for years.

The production has no formal connection to the college. But as it happens, six of the 10 people involved do, from the director, Oliver Conant, a graduate, to the lighting technician, who is a current student.

Bukiet wrote the play without consulting the Sarah Lawrence administration, which would probably prefer the story not resurface and had no comment for this article.

Bukiet figures that tenure will protect his job — “At least, I hope so” — but added, “I’m not going to stand under any windows outside the administration building. That’s for sure.”

Some of Ray’s victims objected to their travails becoming fodder for a play that bills itself as “darkly funny.”

Daniel Barban Levin, now a writer in Los Angeles who published a book about his experience, called the production an “insidious” revictimization. After suffering under Ray, he said, “it’s hard for me to hear that a Sarah Lawrence teacher, a representative of Sarah Lawrence, is taking more from us.”

“It’s enough to get tortured, but when people further exploit our trauma, it only duplicates the experience of our lives being stolen all over again,” he said.

Bukiet said the real-life story was merely a “spark” for a dramatic exploration of “how susceptible people can be.”

He avoided researching the details “because I didn’t want the reality of it to intrude on my imagination” and said he was confident the play would deepen a viewer’s empathy.

At a recent rehearsal, the actors ran through scenes, beginning with the main character, Zander Bay, a tough guy with a shady past, showing up at his daughter Jane’s town house dorm and moving in. Ray had showed up in 2010 fresh out of prison and needing a couch to crash on.

Like Ray, Zander is a master manipulator who works his way into the minds of vulnerable students. Through counseling sessions and “family” meetings, he coerces them into sex, theft and prostitution.

Participants in the production said they expected that Sarah Lawrence graduates would make up a good portion of the audience.

“All of us were drawn to this because it’s a therapeutic way to discuss the situation,” Earnest said, acknowledging that discomfort remains.

“I still feel a bit of that trepidation going into rehearsal,” she said. “I’m nervous about representing the story in the correct way, especially because I have that connection to the school.

“I don’t want to represent Sarah Lawrence negatively,” she added. “It was a great place, and I’m glad I went there.”

Her familiarity with the college has helped her embody Jane, a role she auditioned for because of her fascination with Talia Ray: “How could someone let their father come in and do this?” she said.

Zander is played by Jack Coggins, a schoolteacher from Hoboken, New Jersey, whose son attended Sarah Lawrence.

“I’m going from trying to be the ideal Sarah Lawrence parent to the most evil one you can imagine,” Coggins said.

He said Larry Ray “was definitely in my consciousness” when he saw the casting call for a manipulative, Rasputin-like “bad dad.” He auditioned several days before Ray was sentenced in January.

“It helped that I knew Sarah Lawrence, because I could see how someone could become a wolf in sheep’s clothing and could stay anonymous for a long time without being discovered by the administration,” he said.

The director, Conant, said his son, who graduated shortly after Ray was on campus, liked the play. But his mother, Miriam Bernheim Conant, 91, who taught political theory at Sarah Lawrence for 40 years, was “appalled.”

“She said, ‘Isn’t this just dirty laundry?’” he said.

“From the school’s perspective, it might be regarded as that,” he said. “But I see it as a story about conformists following a con man, and that’s a story that looms very large in this country right now.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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