Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Something You Did

I had never seen a Willy Holtzman play, but I was familiar with the playwright’s name because my friend Merwin Goldsmith had appeared in a Holtzman play, Hearts, at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE last fall and said the experience had been one of the most profound of his career. He had never seen anything like the audience reactions and involvement.

Now, having seen Primary Stage’s production of Something You Did at 59E59 Theaters, I also am impressed by Holtzman’s work. This edgy 90-minute drama, directed by Carolyn Cantor, about a former 60s radical had me completely involved every second. And 60s radicals are not usually a subject that would interest me.

Much of the credit needs to go to the brilliant Joanna Gleason who plays Alison Moulton, the now middle-aged former activist who has spent three decades in jail for her part in the accidental killing of a police officer. Alison had been part of a group that planted a bomb in a locker at Grand Central Terminal as a protest against the Vietnam War. The bomb went off prematurely before the group could call in a threat and have the place evacuated.

The play takes place 30 years later as Alison is coming up for parole. As portrayed by Gleason, Alison is so real. She made me care about this woman, and I would not normally care about someone like that. Yes, protesting the war is good, but people who destroy property, even if no one is killed, make me angry, not understanding.

Notice I did not say sympathetic. I would definitely not have sympathy for someone who did that, but Gleason’s Alison isn’t looking for sympathy. She acknowledges her guilt and she deeply regrets the death. “I am confronted by the past every waking hour,” she says.

But she still has a spark of idealism, believing she can and should help make the world a better place. She’s done that in prison, helping inmates with their G.E.D. preparation, listening to their sorrows and training puppies to be seeing eye dogs. Now she wants to get out, to do something as simple as sit on a park bench and watch a squirrel, but also because she feels she can still make a contribution. I wanted her to go free.

Gleason’s is by far the strongest performance, although I did really enjoy Portia as Uneeq, the corrections officer. The relationship between the two women seems genuine and I liked their interactions in the prison library where Alison works and meets visitors.

I was disappointed in Adriane Lenox as Lenora, the slain officer’s daughter. She had been so powerful in her Tony-winning role in Doubt, but here she is too one dimensional when she visits Alison in prison. She has the expected anger toward the woman who was partly responsible for her father’s death, but she didn’t reveal the pain that would still be there, even after 30 years. When she recounts how her last time with her father, who had raised her after her mother died, had resulted in an argument, I would have expected deep regret to show on her face and in her body language. It didn’t.

The weakest performance is by Victor Slezak as Gene, one of Alison’s former activists now a conservative commentator who is paid handsomely for his writing and speeches. “I don’t deny my past,” he tells Alison, “I just consign it to its proper developmental place, like acne.” His opportunistic sleaziness comes through, but nothing in him ever led me to believe he had once been willing to risk his life to go to Mississippi to register black voters.

Eugene Lee’s set is simple and effective. Lee, who has been the production designer for “Saturday Night Live” since 1974, has also created big Broadway sets, winning a Tony for Wicked. His prison library, surrounded by chain fencing and locked doors, has an institutional look, but also conveys some of the homey warmth of a library. Gene’s office is brought forth from minimal furniture shifts and Jeff Croiter’s lighting.

Holtzman’s play raises some interesting questions. In the 1960s, Alison and her fellow war protesters weren’t considered terrorists, but in the post 9/11 world is all bombing, no matter the cause, considered terrorism? Is dissent treason? What responsibility do citizens have in the face of their government’s involvement in a questionable war with no end in sight?

Performances of Something You Did run through April 28. Tickets may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or online at

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