The title of Stan Richardson’s play Private Manning Goes to Washington suggests that this fictionalized drama is about the life and trials of whistleblower and transgender woman Chelsea Manning. Instead, Manning’s case is used as a jumping-off point for the parallel case of Aaron Swartz (Matt Steiner), a freedom of information activist and Internet prodigy. As the story unfolds, it quickly becomes evident that Manning’s imprisonment acts as a spark for Swartz to get his childhood neighbor, Billy (E. James Ford), to help him write a play about Manning.
Billy retells his experience of Swartz’s contacting him in September of 2012 and their meeting in Swartz’s apartment, where lighting and set designer Paul Hudson has packed the stage full of numbered Bankers Boxes and stacks of stuffed, manila folders that magically illuminate in the final scene. In Swartz’s world, the manila folder is designed to be unnoticeable so that it can hide mundane information that can save the world from inequality. It is Swartz’s passionate belief in sharing information openly and freely that inspires him to partner with Billy to write a play about an imaginary meeting that Manning has with President Obama in the Oval Office.
Swartz was struggling with being charged by federal prosecutors with wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for downloading a great number of academic articles from a digital library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The 26-year-old was facing 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines when he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Jan. 11, 2013. Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified information in 2010 to WikiLeaks when she was an intelligence analyst for the United States Army. Both Swartz and Manning believed that they were benefiting the American public by making the information that they had access to available to anyone.
This play-within-a-play can occur like a good, hour-long conversation between two grown, white men who are speculating about the future of information being a basic human right. The production itself takes place in a large, cozy, carpeted basement of a private apartment rather than in a studio or a theater. The actors make full use of the space by using the actual bathroom and hallway as an entrance. The space is designed to resemble a black box theater, but the darkness of a black box has been replaced with a neutral color scheme. The walls are made of off-white drapes and they create a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Throughout his performance, Steiner (who co-directed, with Richardson) captures and maintains Swartz’s focus and drive. It is as though Swartz is stuck in his head and always thinking about solving a problem. This intensity appears subtle at first, but it is eventually unleashed when Swartz jumps on Billy’s back and the two men wrestle with each other on the ground.
Nevertheless, the relationship between Swartz and Billy is forced and underdeveloped because their backstories lack depth. Billy’s experience with being a playwright or producing theatrical productions is vague—other than that he “put[s] on plays with inmates.” Audiences may be left wondering why Swartz chose Billy out of all of the playwrights that Swartz could have access to in New York. Swartz believed in Billy’s writing when they were students, and Swartz submitted Billy’s entire journal to the English Department Poetry Prize without Billy’s permission. Still, Swartz’s motivation to partner with Billy on this project while Swartz was supposedly under surveillance and facing criminal charges is not entirely clear.
Richardson takes pieces of each character’s life and weaves them together in an effort to make points about injustice and acceptance. It can all land as disjointed, sudden and unripe at times. When Billy visits Swartz’s home for a scheduled meeting, he is met by a young woman who introduces herself as Swartz’s girlfriend. Their short exchange is only a few lines and she says, “[Swartz] lived here. But you know he hung himself yesterday.” Yet prior to this moment the play never mentions that Swartz had a girlfriend or suggests that he was suicidal. Swartz’s death is used as a quick transition for the actual play to begin about Manning speaking with President Obama.
When Manning does finally speak with President Obama, it sounds more like a conversation between a father choosing to accept and forgive his daughter for her past actions. The tone of this production remains safely moderate, and it chooses to not be a heavily politicized piece that could isolate itself from some audiences. This apartment play does imply that the responsibility of Manning’s freedom and the atrocities that Manning exposed to the world falls in the hands of President Obama. Private Manning Goes to Washington does bring to life the skeletons in our nation’s closet for all to see.
Private Manning Goes to Washington runs until Dec. 18 at The Studio @ 345 (345 West 13 St., between Hudson Street and Eighth Avenue) in Manhattan. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Tickets cost $40 and $20 for students. To purchase tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org for student tickets or visit therepresentatives.org.