"Hearts of Man" is a self-important work that blurs the very distinctions it hopes to examine.

The questions are important: Where do legal and moral boundaries lie in hunting down Internet pedophile predators? But “Hearts of Man” is a self-important work that blurs the very distinctions it hopes to examine. Adriano Shaplin’s language is highfalutin, reaching with sophomoric glee for alliteration and rhymes, and the unlikable characters seem scraped off the cutting room floor of “Law and Order.” The only special victim here is the audience.

The sex sting has already happened when this quasi-courtroom drama begins; Rabideux (Drew Friedman) was arrested on his way to meet a 14-year-old boy he had chatted up online. But the “boy” was actually a middle-aged cop (Dennis McSorley) and so defense counsel Vicki (Stephanie Viola) argues that this was really an arrangement between two consenting adults.

The judge (Tara V. Perry) doesn’t buy it. Nor does she buy any of the ways the tough-as-nails, churchgoing, ambitious lawyer cooks up to quash the case.

Coincidentally (uh, oh) Kris, Vicki’s assistant (Kristen Sieh), a just-starting-out lawyer (who seems to wear only untucked, unironed shirts) is the pedophile’s estranged sister. Why they are estranged is never revealed although an erased “trace memory” is mentioned. Her odd response to the charges against him is “I didn’t know he was gay” — as though that were the shocking aspect of the case.

In old-fashioned style, it’s the guys against the gals, each fulfilling every cheap stereotype: the women are young and fiery, the men are for the most part middle-aged and rumpled.

The play’s interesting issue arises not from the legalities of entrapment but from the “zone of fantasy” the Internet creates — “a private place, like prayer” as the impassive Rabideux says. In the dark underworld of “luring,” is the weird intimacy of online chatrooms more real than the supposed reality of news reports and TV interviews? As someone asks, “Do words amount to ‘penetration’?”

Shaplin’s sound design of chimes and tinkly piano music and buzzers is eerily tension-producing, unlike the acting, which seems startlingly amateurish given the reputation of the Riot Group.

And are the characters called by the actors’ names in some mistaken notion of realism? When Kris said to the TV interviewer, “you do voodoo in your studio,” the jig, for me, was totally up.

Hearts of Man

Arden Theatre; 187 Seats; $20 Top

Production

A Riot Group presentation at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival of a play in one act written and directed by Adriano Shaplin. Lighting, Maria Shaplin; costumes, Melinda Basca; sound, Adriano Shaplin. Opened Sept. 5, 2007. Reviewed Sept. 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.

Cast

Vicki DeFazio - Stephanie Viola Paul, the D.A. - Paul Schnabel Rabideux - Drew Friedman Jill, Judge, June, Jacki - Tara Perry Kris - Kristen Sieh Detective Dennis - Dennis McSorley
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