The power of “Lured,” a gutsy new political drama exposing heinous crimes against gay men in present-day Russia, is felt well before the actors take the stage. Upon entering the tiny Cino Theater at Theater for the New City, we’re confronted with an ominous tableau (Steven Medina created the gritty set).
We see a dingy, mostly empty room, with a disintegrating linoleum-tiled floor, lit only by a harsh overhead light, the type used at a KGB interrogation during the Cold War. A little pink inflatable kiddie pool, emblazoned with images of Barbie, lies on the floor. As we scan the room we see a couple of metal folding chairs, old paint cans, duct tape, a poster with shirtless hunks, a few beer bottles, and a toilet plunger. Is that a rubber dildo on the table?
A scratchy soundtrack plays chunks of haunting tunes, like the Russian-inspired classic “Those Were the Days” and “Uprising,” the glam rock anthem by Muse, with its defiant refrain, “They. Will. Not. Control us.”
When the action begins, the dark promise of the set is methodically fulfilled. By the end of the drama, among the most arduous and exhilarating 80 minutes I’ve spent at the theater in recent memory, each of those props is put to dastardly use.
In Scene One, a strapping young man is lured to the room by a crazed thug named Valentin (a deliciously brooding Marc Lombardo), with the assurance of sex via a gay hookup app. Moments later he is pistol whipped, gagged with soiled underwear, questioned, taunted, tortured, forced to strip naked, and more. A jittery woman (Carlotta Brentan) documents the horrors on her smartphone, to be posted on a website for the world to see. Another accomplice (David Joseph Volino), armed with brass knuckles, aids in the assault.
Written by Frank J. Avella, who co-directed along with Brentan, “Lured” is set in St. Petersburg in 2014 and is inspired by actual events. Shockingly, such a toxic environment is now part of life for LGBTQ people in Putin’s Russia, thanks to his “gay propaganda” law allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Victims are not only humiliated and beaten, but their lives are destroyed. Once their face appears in a video, they are shunned by their employers, friends, and families. Men have died from their injuries. They sometimes turn to suicide as the only way out.
In a flashback to a few weeks earlier, Scene Two finds a parallel incident. This time the target is Dmitry (John DiMino), a timid schoolteacher entrapped by the cute Evgeny (Brendan Daugherty), who videos the proceedings. Dmitry is grilled and tortured by a brute named Sergio (Kalen J Hall) and his girlfriend, Tatiana (Cali Gilman).
“Dance, faggot. Dance or I’ll kick your skull in,” Sergio says after sucker-punching a shirtless, sobbing Dmitry.
The vigilante terrorists are members of Occupy Pedophilia, one of many hate groups active in Russia that wickedly equates homosexuality with sexual abuse of children. They rationalize their violence as pro-children activism.
By Scene Three, a continuation of the action in Scene One, it becomes clear that the identities of certain perpetrators and victims are not what they first appeared (I won’t spoil the reveal here, but it’s potent and affecting). Will the victims get their revenge?
If the dialogue is at times overwrought and the staging a bit clunky — the pacing and fight scenes are not as fluid as they could be — the performers, employing Russian accents, are committed and thoroughly convincing.
As one of the sadistic haters, Lombardo is perfectly cast, delivering a rich, complex characterization beyond the typical stage villain. The tiara he wears is an inspired touch.
What’s more, this naturalistic psychological drama succeeds in painting a vivid picture of why vigilante hate groups have it in for “homosexuals,” or anyone seen as threatening traditional values.
“I do not do anything for the government of Russia,” says Tatiana. “I do this for the morality of Russia. We must protect our own.”
The piece asks who should decide what is moral, and if hate is inherent or learned. It also contemplates the value of revenge. At the play’s climax, we are left with no easy answers.
Even more sobering than the play was the talkback featuring Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA-LGBT, an advocacy group for Russian-speaking LGBTQ émigrés. He revealed that many of the events in “Lured” happened to him and his friends, and estimated that 90 percent of LGBTQ people in Russia are deep in the closet, living in fear. And the police do nothing to help. You may recall the May 2017 reports of at least 100 gay men being sent to a concentration camp in Chechnya.
Also on hand was Kyle Knight, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, which documents the persecution. He explained that while not long ago the hate groups were shamed into secrecy, they are now given tacit permission to operate openly. Much of this hatred is fueled by right-wing groups in the US.
“Trump empowers bigots,” Knight said.
These witch hunts are hardly confined to Russia, and they’re spreading to other countries. Gorshkov offered a chilling prediction, asserting that unless something major is done to fight these groups now, similar abuses of LGBTQ people will spread to the US.
LURED | Theater for the New City, Cino Theater, 155 First Ave., btwn. E, Ninth & 10th Sts. | Through Nov. 25: Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $18 at luredtheplay.com | 80 mins., no intermission
The evening performance on November 17 will be followed by a talkback led by Adam Feldman of Time Out NY about politically and socially conscious theater with an LGBTQ emphasis. Guests include Tony Speciale, former artistic director of the Abingdon Theatre Company.