As It Happens

Playwright brings story of alleged fake heiress Anna Sorokin to the stage

As the grand larceny trial of fake socialite Anna Sorokin gets underway, playwright Joseph Charlton tells us why he created a show out of her story — a woman creating a glitzy New York lifestyle for herself by allegedly bilking friends, banks and hotels.

Playwright Joseph Charlton says the 'sheer guile' of Anna Sorokin inspired him to take her story to the stage

Anna Sorokin appears in New York State Supreme Court on grand larceny charges on Wednesday. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

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It didn't take long after Anna Delvey landed in Manhattan for people to take notice.

She was charming. She picked up the tab at high-end bars. She told people she was a German heiress working on opening a massive arts space.

But prosecutors told a court in New York this week that she was, in fact, penniless. Her real name is Anna Sorokin and she stands accused of scamming people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You may have heard her story. It was splashed on the pages of Vanity Fair and New York Magazine. It's fascinated big-name producers Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham — who are both creating shows out of the story.

Joseph Charlton beat them to it. His play, Anna X, just finished a run in London.

As It Happens guest host Megan Williams spoke to Charlton about what compelled him to take Sorokin's story to the stage.

Here is part of their conversation.

What is it about Anna Sorokin that made you want to write a play out of your story?

The first thing I heard about Anna Sorokin was some quotes when she was awaiting trial in Rikers [Island], about a year ago.

The thing that really drew me to her was her kind of apparent defiance about what she'd been involved in. She broadly kind of said: If I had the chance I would do it again and I do it more.

She was referring to her [alleged] attempted grand larceny. She was completely unflinching.

So, how did she do it? How did she come to New York City, with virtually nothing, and create this high-flying social life for herself?

As far as I understand it, there's this Instagram of hers, which is about four or five years ago.

It's really kind of this kind of monument to a fake life.

That was really how she facilitated this fake life, really — was harnessing the Internet, really. And showing off a kind of life mixing with quite a high cachet of people in Paris and in New York.

That's what was really fascinating about it as a story to fictionalize, is that there's still a level of mystery as to how exactly she did it. But I think the cornerstone of it was the Internet and being able to found an identity for yourself online.

She's on trial now. She's accused of stiffing luxury hotels, a friend who went on a lavish trip with her to Morocco and even a bank. How did she suck in all these people?

She was at the kind of top clubs, kind of out and about, quite a lot. At that point, she was kind of famous for tipping very generously everywhere she went, which which is part of her kind of folklore appeal, I think.

I think everyone just sort of presumed she was loaded because of that. 

It kind of escalated, this fancy, and she decided she wanted to start her own art foundation, which was going to be a physical space in a sort of beautiful medieval facade building on Park Avenue.

She had designs that she would actually get a loan for this $21-million building.

She was quite close to actually unlocking this loan. I mean, that's kind of partly the extraordinary thing about the story.

In the age of Billy McFarland and Fyre Festival, it's interesting that we have so many people that say they're going to do something and they don't have the means to do it.

But, you know, if she had pulled it off, she would have been a massive deal really. So she wasn't really that far off from ... having nothing to really having something.

One of her alleged victims, Rachel Williams, was quoted as saying, "It was a magic trick. I'm embarrassed to say that I was one of the props and the audience too. Anna's was a beautiful dream of New York like one of those nights that never seems to end — and then the bill arrives." How how much of this was about other people's projections of a certain life, that New York City or a lot of sort of glamorous urban scenes, represent?

There's probably an irony to the fact that a lot of people caught up in her net probably weren't actually New Yorkers or native New Yorkers.

I think that image of New York as this wonderful, aspirational place — everyone was kind of slaughtered at the altar of that aspiration, really.

Sorokin is on trial on grand larceny and theft of services charges. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Was there any appeal to you? I mean, did you have some sympathy for her?

Of course, yeah. I think the sheer kind of guile and in terms of someone who you fictionalize, at the moment she's kind of this rare thing, which is a silent celebrity. There's no videos of her talking online. We don't know what she sounds [like]. And the only real history of her is is through her Instagram page.

It's kind of a romantic story. And I think when she gets out eventually, I'm sure she'll have achieved the kind of infamy/fame that she was probably always after.

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.