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.”