Arts Desk

David Horowitz: Enemy of Radical Islam, Lefty Professors…and Theater J?

For the second time in a year, D.C.'s Theater J finds itself on the receiving end of criticism from a real-life person who's unhappy about how he's being portrayed in a fictional play.

This spring, holocaust memoirist Elie Wiesel threatened to sue the company over Imagining Madoff, a play that involved a fictitious dialogue between Wiesel and financial swindler Bernie Madoff (and which, in the process, might have reminded viewers that Wiesel's foundation was among Madoff's victims). Wiesel's complaints ultimately led to the play's cancellation.

The replacement play, Willy Holtzman's Something You Did, also draws from real life—albeit without real names: Its main character, jailed for a deadly bombing, is based on the 1960s radical Kathy Boudin. A second character bears a more-than-passing resemblance to David Horowitz, the former Marxist turned right-wing activist. And Horowitz isn't happy about the portrayal.

But Horowitz, best known these days for caustic books about how nefarious left-wingers control  academia and empower Islamic radicals, appears to be interested in more exposure, not less. He suggested the theater re-enact the controversy via theatrical readings of his irate response and the playwright's rebuttal.

Well, first, Theater J put the whole affair on its blog. Horowitz got wind of  Something You Did from a Washington Post article, and then from his friend and fellow righty Ron Radosh. In the play, the Boudin character interacts with a former '60s-radical-turned-conservative-pundit (based on Horowitz, as well as Glenn Beck). Radosh saw the play and, with reservations, was excited by it, according to Theater J's artistic director, Ari Roth.

Radosh put Horowitz in touch with Roth, who agreed to publish Horowitz's response to the script; they also discussed Horowitz flying in for an event at Theater J on the work. But after being sent a script, Horowitz wasn't so pleased. He decided he wouldn't participate in an event, deciding it was "too much of a schlep," says Roth.

Instead, Horowitz wrote a response—an essay, really, in which he points out the ways in which the story of Something You Did's Gene Biddle diverges from his own, and takes exception to the play's moral lessons. Theater J posted it online today. "In sum, this play is dishonest in its core," Horowitz concludes in the essay. "It misrepresents the reasons Kathy Boudin committed her crime, it misrepresents the crime itself, and it whitewashes her culpability as a supporter of terrorist acts. Finally, it misrepresents who I am and why I opposed her parole."

Holtzman responded in a letter that was also posted today. "It’s unclear if he merely misread the play or whether he even read it at all. In any case, plays are meant to be seen not read," Holtzman writes. "Had he seen my play he would know that he is not depicted in it at all. The character Gene Biddle might share certain attitudes with Horowitz (certainly Gene has read many of his books and blogs), but their resumes diverge in countless ways. Simply put, Gene Biddle is not David Horowitz; he is a character from an earlier play of mine entitled Bovver Boys."

But Theater J, which despite its handling of Imagining Madoff has a reputation for courting controversy, won't let it rest with a couple of dueling blog posts. Following this Saturday's performance of Something You Did, actors from the play are going to read the letters dramatically: Rick Foucheux (Biddle) will play the part of Horowitz, and Norman Aronovic (who plays a lawyer in the play) will be Holtzman.

Roth says the idea for the readings came from Horowitz.

It's a bit of a gimmick, Roth concedes, but also an opportunity for Theater J's audience to weigh in on a tricky question: When a dramatist takes inspiration from real life, what fidelity does he owe to the facts? And, in the case of Something You Did, has Holtzman "stacked the deck" against the Biddle character or added a layer of complexity to real-life events?

I saw the play last night and I think Holtzman does both. Both Alison Moulton (the Boudin stand-in) and the Horowitz-esque Biddle are flawed, complicated characters. The audience won't wholly forgive either for their trespasses. But, it's true, the former proves far more redeemable, despite the blood on her hands. Though Biddle isn't quite the villain, he's awfully close.

Horowitz's main problem is that Holtzman has collapsed both Boudin's history and Horowitz's: Moulton's timeline is condensed, and she is jailed for a murder that is, essentially, an accidental one. The real Boudin was involved with a bomb plot that would've killed people was present at a Greenwich Village townhouse when a nail bomb intended to kill people accidentally went off, killing three members of the Weathermen (Boudin said she had nothing to do with the nail bomb). Ten years later she was involved in the murder of two police officers.

In the play, Biddle has a romantic history with Moulton and a past association with her father. Horowitz sees the play as essentially weighing in on his career and the crimes of Boudin and then making a judgement: Because Moulton has stayed true to her ideals and Biddle has betrayed his, she is the more moral character, murderer or not. Holtzman says the play gives Biddle and Moulton equal voice, and that while it takes inspiration from real events, it's really about "the paradoxical nature of American political life" and "the way the past reaches into the present." (An event clearly drawn from 2008's Ayers-Obama controversy is also a plot point.)

In his note in Something You Did's program, Holtzman invokes Horowitz and Boudin as inspirations. He also makes plain that he has fictionalized their stories. Roth points out fictionalizing real life is as old as drama itself. Things only get tricky—as they did with Elie Wiesel—when the fictionalizing involves public figures who are still alive.

I asked Roth whether Holtzman's story is fair. He answered with a question: "Did [Holtzman] play it straight, or as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal did he mean to set [Biddle] up as a foil, as a conniving, cynical character?" Saturday's audience will have to debate the answer to that.

But Roth thinks that the Gene Biddle character is more multidimensional than Horowitz suggests. "[Biddle] doesn’t have the dignity or contrition of [Moulton]—but he's a guy who may have married the wrong woman, a guy who has some feelings for Alison. That’s the totally novel thing that Willy Holtzman brings to this, the idea of a past relationship between these nemeses, the neocon ideologue and the still-beating lefty, and they may even share an emotional bond with each other."

I've e-mailed Horowitz and Holtzman; I'll share their thoughts once I hear back. UPDATE: And here are their thoughts.

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