Something You Did
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
March 29, 2008
When sitting down for a play, I make an effort to skim over everything in the program, feeling that there must be a reason why the director includes a note or a playwright writes an essay. So in the case of Something You Did, the new offering from Primary Stages, I dutifully read all of the information provided to me in my program. That included a table comparing facts about the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and an essay by the playwright, Willy Holtzman, who asks provocatively, "Alison Moulton may be guilty of a criminal action, but how many of us are guilty of moral inaction?"
Alison Moulton, the protagonist of Something You Did, is a 1960s radical serving time for the death of an African American New York City policeman, after she contributed to planting a nail bomb in Grand Central Terminal. (Her story is based heavily on Symbionese Liberation Army veteran Sara Jane Olson.) Now, 30 years after the officer's death, Alison is up for parole. Her lawyer, Arthur, tries to get Gene, a right-wing journalist who used to be Alison's radical comrade, to write an op-ed piece advocating her parole. But to complicate matters, Alison arranges a meeting with the daughter of the deceased police officer, Lenora. Will Alison receive parole, or does her terrorist-like act render her too dangerous for a post-9/11 nation?
That sounds like pretty serious stuff, but at its heart, Something You Did is a comedy—even the sound design by Lindsay Jones, which includes upbeat music between the scenes, emphasizes the play's sitcom-like tone. That light atmosphere and the emotional story are anchored by Joanna Gleason as Alison, who brings natural warmth to the stage. Her voice tender but never patronizing, she acts as a surrogate mother to a saucy prison guard Uneeq, played by Portia with droll gusto (and without giving in to Holtzman's one-note stereotype). And when conversing with her lawyer, embodied with dry deadpan by Jordan Charney, Gleason seems to smile with her eyes even when stonily serious.
However, Gleason never fully captures the stringent spirit that we're told exists underneath. Could this woman, who seems to lack any sharp edges, have ever detonated a bomb? One can only assume that director Carolyn Cantor cast Gleason with a strategic purpose. Gleason looks and acts so much like the mother of your childhood best friend, ever-ready to offer you freshly-baked cookies, that you'd forgive her indiscretions.
And that is exactly the point. Rather than weighing the consequences of letting a criminal out of prison (either in terms of danger to society or danger to the justice system), Holtzman's play applauds people for standing up for what they believe in and justifies the dire destruction those beliefs might cause. What's particularly aggravating about that is Holtzman includes only a cursory overview of Alison's supposedly passionate beliefs—merely that she opposed the Vietnam War and advocated Civil Rights which, frankly, a lot of people did. Instead of real political content, Holtzman boils down all discussion to slick sound bites, such as "everyone knows a neo-con is just a liberal who's been mugged." Keeping with the sitcom tone, Cantor highlights the pat jabs at post-9/11 paranoia, the injustice of Alison's lengthy imprisonment, and the government's unwarranted breaches of citizen life.
The only time Holtzman introduces a legitimate, alternative point of view is with the policeman's daughter, in the play's most earnest and thoughtful scene. As Lenora, Adriane Lenox operates with such a controlled and heartfelt fury that she makes Alison, who talks of vague ideals and oaths, look very foolish indeed. But then Lenora disappears, and the only one left to oppose Alison's parole is Gene. The kind of right-wing token that many theatergoers love to hate, Gene even whines that after all his hard work in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power leaders like Stokley Carmichael just encouraged blacks to hate them. With this kind of material, Victor Slezak has little choice but to have fun, letting the slime drip down from his hair, wearing his insincerity on the lapel of his well-tailored suits. All he needs is a cigar.
The best politically oriented plays inspire new thoughts in the audience, present varying arguments without bias, and ask questions that the viewer attempts to answer during and after the play's conclusion. But Something You Did is like its own program: one big rhetorical question.