nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
August 20, 2010
Alternative Methods examines the United States' use of torture (or so-called "alternative methods") to interrogate prisoners in Iraq. In the play, set in 2007, an Iraqi doctor is detained by the U.S. military for traveling past curfew. They suspect him of treating a leading insurgent; he claims his right to silence. When a brutal ex-C.I.A agent can't intimidate the doctor into talking, they bring in an earnest young psychologist. She sincerely believes she'll be allowed to humanely question the doctor and use her training for good. She has no idea what cruelty her superiors have in store, or how quickly things will escalate to life or death stakes.
It's a harrowing situation completely based on fact. The "alternative methods" Mike, the ex-CIA agent, uses to humiliate and terrorize Mohammad—putting women's underwear on his head, kicking him, punching him, handcuffing him to a chair, pulling his handcuffs till his wrists chafe, waterboarding—are now widely known as having been used by U.S. interrogators, though it's no less terrifying to see them re-created onstage.
The play's most shocking revelation concerns the psychologist, Susan—I had no idea psychologists were involved in these interrogations. In 2007, the American Psychological Association passed guidelines on what constituted the use of torture, and psychologists were brought to detention centers to see these guidelines were followed. But the rules were not always clear. Susan's dilemma illustrates this. She assumes torture will not be used, but her supervisor, Robert Wolf, argues that force is necessary. Susan doesn't realize how much force until it is almost too late.
It's a situation rife with drama, but somehow, there's a curious detachment to this play. Patricia Davis's writing is richly detailed, and she has researched her subject well, but other than Susan and the Iraqi doctor, Mohammad, the other key characters never come to life. Susan and Mohammad are complex, but Susan's superiors are one-dimensional bad guys—a burly bully and a cowardly academic. There's much recitation of exposition at the expense of action, a lot of spoon-feeding information. The play begins with an awkward, brief scene in which Mohammad is captured by American soldiers—why show this at all? Why not just cut to the chase and show him being dragged in handcuffs to the interrogation room? All the information we learn in the first scene is repeated again in the next, so this awkward opening salvo feels superfluous.
The strongest scenes are between Susan and Mohammad, in which Susan gradually learns to question her most basic assumptions. Julie Kline brings a fierce intelligence and compassion to Susan, while Alok Tewari is riveting as Mohammad, the doctor who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hend Ayoub brings passionate conviction to her memorable, brief scene as Mohammad' s wife.
Director Josh Liveright paces the production well, choreographing seamless transitions between interrogation room and the observation room. Paul Smithyman's ingenious set creates the environment with the simplest of suggestions: a battered metallic wall that represents the interrogation cell on one side, and the observation room on the other. This wall is turned and shifted in different positions, clearly marking one scene from the next.
In all, while Alternative Methods does not fully mine its own inherent drama, it is nonetheless an informative and at times terrifying lesson into the depths of human cruelty.