While director Annie Dorsen found inspiration for Democracy in America in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, her new show at P.S.122 could easily exchange titles with another play that opened this week: Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did. The agreeable mess of Democracy in America is, for better or for worse, something we did.
Some months ago, with the support of the Foundry Theatre, Dorsen launched a website on which anyone could pay to add elements to the play. For $10, one could write a line of dialogue; for $15, one could dictate a costume item; for an undisclosed amount, one could order that a duck filled with pudding drop from the ceiling. Dorsen promised that she, her designers, and performers Philippa Kaye, Tony Torn, and Okwui Okpokwasili would arrange these disparate elements into an evening of theater.
Of course, this isn’t really democracy, at least as we purport to practice it. A more representative process would have playwrights, actors, and designers campaigning for the privilege to work on the project, with the winners decided by vote. (I, for one, would look forward to costume-designer debates or dramaturges launching attack ads at their opponents.) Nor is it wholly American—a few Brazilians apparently made purchases.
But is it a work of theater? Well, of course, in the sense that it occurs onstage before an audience. Yet while it has many of the trappings of the theatrical—musical numbers, lighting cues, sophisticated sound design—it lacks some of the more conventional ones: plot, characters, argument. We, the people, are no great writers. With a clutter of disconnected lines such as “Tissue? I hardly know you!” and “God is good, and so are black men,” the evening drags, though it runs only 45 minutes. Unlike our system of government, this seems a cheerful but not particularly successful experiment. Of course, my opinions shouldn’t necessarily be trusted: A colleague paid to contribute a line that scrolled on an LED: “Alexis Soloski’s journalistic integrity is suspect at best.” (Confidential to A.T.: I am so going to get you for this.)
Conversely, Holtzman’s Something You Did, at Primary Stages, actually does concern democracy in America—as well as its discontents. The play follows Alison Moulton (Joanna Gleason), a former member of the Weathermen. Thirty years ago, she helped plant a nail bomb; an off-duty police officer died, and Alison has been imprisoned since. With a parole hearing in the offing, Alison must decide whether or not to inform on her fellow travelers. If she does, she will gain her release. But she will also betray the movement for which she’s sacrificed her freedom.
Something You Did resembles a thesis play on the legacy of the 1960s, except that Holtzman never makes a very strong argument. He structures much of his script as a series of two-person scenes; in each, characters make political claims, only to have their partners dismantle them. The debates appear provocative, but Holtzman has merely assembled a battalion of straw men. For all the controversial topics, Holtzman’s verdict on the ’60s seems to be: voting rights—good, blowing people up—bad. (The play might appear less facile if the last few years hadn’t seen a series of excellent novels on these same matters: Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions.)
Under Carolyn Cantor’s direction, the men in the cast have a marvelous time, chowing down on their roles as a fast-talking lawyer (Jordan Charney) and a slick neocon (the aptly named Victor Slezak). But the women—with the occasional exception of Portia as a prison guard—give unusually restrained performances. Gleason appears nearly absent of emotion until her speech before the parole board. Who knew a radical could be so prim?