City Paper says Theater J “has Chutzpah!” (in a good way)

Here’s the good article that came out today in the Washington City Paper. And after that, additional Q & A done over email with City Paper reporter Amrita Khalid.

Theater J’s Something You Did, Like the Play It Replaced, Prods Morality with Real-Life Stand-Ins

Posted by Amrita Khalid on Aug. 27, 2010 at 3:03 pm

You’ve got to hand it to Theater J. It originally planned to open its 2010-2011 season with the meditative, button-pushing Imagining Madoff, which centered on a fictitious encounter between Bernie Madoff and Elie Wiesel. But the real-life Wiesel objected to his portrayal, a rewrite was attempted, and the playwright eventually pulled the work.

Lesser theaters might have cut their losses and played it safe—and replaced Imagining Madoff with less provocative fare. Not Theater J, whose Something You Did, a play about former Weather Underground member and convicted murderer Kathy Boudin, opens next week. I believe that’s what you call chutzpah.

“The goal in replacing the Wiesel-Madoff play was to find something that would fill a very particular slot—that of our High Holiday season-opener, hop-scotching the Days of Awe, a period of personal and collective reflection,” says Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director. “Some Jews get all soulful and introspective in synagogues, others in theaters.”

Something You Did centers on a former all-American good girl, Alison Moulton, whose hand in an anti-war bombing kills a police officer and lands her in prison. Thirty years later, the political climate is just as tenuous, and Moulton’s bid for parole is met with indignation from the media, and chiefly from Gene Biddle, a clear stand-in for Glenn Beck. Also thrown into the mix is the daughter of the killed cop, who pays a visit to Moulton in prison, and a White House official with ties to the aforementioned Weather Underground member. Sound somewhat familiar?

“In common with Madoff, [Something You Did] presents a dialectical examination of a crime committed and a moral inquiry,” says Roth. “But as similar as the plays are in topicality and theme, there’s a difference. This is the most American play we’ve ever done—the first play where an American flag is part of the visual branding, from the costume lapel pin to the postcard art. It felt really strange at first to see an American flag as our calling card, but now it feels terribly important and long overdue.”

Asked why Theater J wasn’t understandably wary about staging a play with characters based on living people, Roth says: “The difference in this use of real-life models from the way Imagining Madoff did, is quite simple. Willy Holtzman changed the names of the characters.”

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More from the transcript of our e-interview:

CP: The play centers on a Vietnam-era war protester who has been incarcerated for the past thirty years. Now, almost a decade after 9/11 and a few days after Operation Iraqi Freedom is declared over, we’re in a very different political climate from that of the 60’s. What significance does the play have for audience members today?

The play isn’t about the 60s. It’s about the toxic political climate we’re in today and how 9/11 and right wing media have colored our views of the anti-war movement, then and now. The play is as current as the Bill Ayers-Barack Obama controversy, as Rick Foucheux’s Glen Beck stand-in, Gene Biddle, implicates someone big in Washington who may have worked on Alison Moulton’s legal defense. Moulton is the Kathy Boudin stand-in, a former Weather Underground member convicted of killing of an African American police officer. Alison’s arranged for a meeting in prison with the slain officer’s daughter. This meeting, promising reconciliation between black and white–between perpetrator and surviving family member–goes not well. Alison’s next meeting is encountering Gene, a nemesis who’s angling for a way to tell Alison’s story (as “poster girl for the failure of the Left”) before the parole board and before a Fox-TV audience.

Can the far Left and far Right ever find common ground, especially today, as the Right invokes Islamo-Fascist terror in taunting the Left? One would think there’s no hope for any connection, except that this play draws a line between past and present in charting the transformation of Foucheux’s neo-con, Biddle, who was once politically, as well as romantically, in bed with Alison. Deborah Hazzlet’s Alison embarks on her own transformation, from a place of self-righteousness to the brink of real contrition. She’s given an opportunity to have a powerful new advocate arguing for her freedom, but it would mean giving up a name; testifying against someone whose involvement has been, up till now, kept secret.

This play makes messy emotional business of the binary, black and white political warfare gripping this country. It gives voice to a venomous political discourse, but in the end, reveals something rich and soulful and even hopeful.

CP: Are there any characters, like in Imagining Madoff, who are based on living people? Do you envision any problems with the play’s content?

Gosh, I hope so. The play’s based on tons of real people; Alison Moultin’s based on Kathy Boudin and her well-known, now deceased father, attorney Leonard Moultin. Gene Biddle is most closely based on neo-con David Horowitz, former editor at the New Left magazine, Ramparts, and now president of the right wing Freedom Center, who was quick to label Boudin a terrorist and equate her with “Islamofascists” when she came up for parole after 9/11. The difference in this use of real-life models from the way Imagining Madoff did, is quite simple; Willy Holtzman changed the names of the characters. In so doing, he allowed himself to depart from reality but use salient details to reference reality.