May 14, 2023

New Play Looks for Dark Humor Beneath the Sarah Lawrence Sex Cult Ordeal

A small production that involves faculty and graduates largely mirrors Lawrence Ray’s yearslong exploitation of vulnerable students. Some of his victims object.

Corey Kilgannon
The New York Times
May 13, 2023

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 Ms. 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,” Ms. 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,” Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Understand the Sarah Lawrence Cult Case

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The case. Lawrence Ray, who was found guilty of extortion, sex trafficking and other offenses that prosecutors said he perpetrated after moving into his daughter’s college dorm room, was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Here is what to know:

A bizarre tale. Ray began spending nights at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County in 2010, after being released from prison on charges related to a child custody dispute. Soon after, he started “therapy sessions” with her roommates.

Years of abuse. According to the authorities, Ray acted like a cult leader, exploiting victims he met at Sarah Lawrence by alienating them from their parents and convincing them that they were “broken and in need of fixing.” His physical and psychological abuse continued for about a decade, as he kept exploiting a group of the students who had moved in with him at a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Victim and accomplice. Isabella Pollok, one of the Sarah Lawrence students who fell under the influence of Ray, pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder money, after being accused by prosecutors of serving as the man’s “trusted lieutenant” in crimes he perpetrated. On Feb. 22, Pollok was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

A guilty verdict After a nearly monthlong trial in 2022, jurors found Ray guilty of 15 counts, including extortion, sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy. Prosecutors claimed that he had used his sway over the young adults to extort money from them, to make them work without pay and to force a young woman into prostitution.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Bukiet figures 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 townhouse dorm and moving in. Mr. Ray had showed up in 2010 fresh out of prison and needing a couch to crash on.

Like Mr. 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 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,” Ms. 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, N.J., 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,” Mr. Coggins said.

He said Mr. Ray “was definitely in my consciousness” when he saw the casting call for a manipulative, Rasputin-like “bad dad.” He auditioned several days before Mr. 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, Mr. Conant, said his son, who graduated shortly after Mr. 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.”

Corey Kilgannon is a Metro reporter covering news and human interest stories. He was also part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. @coreykilgannon • Facebook

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