Saturday, April 5, 2008

Intelligent Soapbox

Theater review - off-Broadway
Something You Did
By Willy Holtzman
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Starring Jordan Charney, Joanna Gleason, Adriane Lenox, Portia, Victor Slezak

Performances March 18-April 26, 2008
Primary Stages at 59 E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street

Portia, Jordan Charney, Victor Slezak, and Joanna Gleason (photo: James Leynse)
In Willy Holtzman’s scrupulously even-handed Something You Did, Alison is onetime radical activist still in prison for taking part in a Grand Central Terminal bombing that accidentally killed a police officer in the '60s. With another parole board hearing drawing near, Alison is hopeful that she will finally be released after three decades. But in a post-9/11 world, there’s more anxiety than ever about freeing terrorists like her.

Holtzman bends over backwards to level the playing field. The opening scene of the play finds Alison’s lawyer, Brooklyn-born firebrand Arthur, discussing prison guard Uneeq’s name in a decidedly non-PC manner. Throughout its 85 intermissionless minutes, the Something You Did literally see-saws back and forth, with comments about conservatives balanced by others about liberals.

Paradoxically, the most explosive moments in the play occur between Alison and two polar opposites: Lenora, the daughter of the dead cop, and Gene, a former fellow radical (and lover) turned big-shot conservative author and rabble-rouser. Good liberal that she is, Alison’s heart bleeds sympathetically for the reserved, courageous Lenora.

The Alison-Lenora scene shows that Holtzman, at his best, has gift for bringing out the complexities in human nature. Too bad that Gene is more of a caricature. Having made his right-wing opinions quite lucrative in Bush’s America, he initially refuses Arthur’s overtures to speak to Alison and help her make her peace with her violent past. When he does agree, Alison wants no part of him; but they soon fall back into their old ways, and it turns out that they have a shared secret about details of the fatal bombing.

Lucidly written though it is, Something You Did is stuffed to the gills with soap-box speechifying, as one character after another declaims orthodox liberal or conservative viewpoints. The effect of this is to drain most of the drama concerning Alison’s possible parole.

Under Carolyn Cantor’s cogent direction, the actors do their best to keep the characters believable and the polemics to a minimum. As Alison, Gleason spends much of the play reacting, but she’s such an incisive, intelligent actress that she's always interesting. And she aces her Big Moment, the climactic scene when she exhaustedly tells the parole board what she has done and describes its effect on her life and others’.

Slezak is a properly sleazy Gene, Charney a formidable Arthur, Portia an engagingly street-smart Uneeq. And Adriane Lenox is excellent as Laura, stealing the show with her work in a single scene, as she did in Doubt. Although Something You Did is not as trenchant as it could be, it's still intelligent, humane theater.

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