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Something You Did

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Something You Did
Joanna Gleason and Jordan Charney.
Photo by James Leynse.

Willy Holtzman's new play Something You Did, which just opened at Primary Stages, might well rank as one of the season's most daring.

This is not because of its production; director Carolyn Cantor has ensured that it's at its best respectful and at its worst staid, with a barbed-wire library set (by Eugene Lee) that magnifies each half of the fight-or-flight nature in all of us. And it's not because of its actors - the cast, which includes Joanna Gleason and Victor Slezak, is roundly professional but unexciting.

No, the play's most distinct feature is the message that haunts it, like a prank-inclined but constipated poltergeist: Terrorism is overrated - the real evil in the world, or at least in that tiny corner of it known as the United States, is hypocrisy. If this moral won't go down easily for everyone, it opens a dozen delectable doors for an enterprising dramatist. Holtzman doesn't bypass many in scrutinizing misplaced priorities as they apply to national and personal politics, but you can't help but wish he would occasionally turn down a more unfamiliar hallway.

Alison (Gleason) may have been imprisoned for 30 years for her part in the death of a New York police officer, but she's a model prisoner who freely shares her writing talents, legal expertise, and good grace with the other inmates and security staff alike. But she too has suffered - she couldn't possibly attend her activist father's funeral in shackles, could she? She's even botched her previous attempts at parole because, due to the efforts of her lawyer father and his partner Arthur (Jordan Charney), the government had the decks stacked against her.

Being a mistreated and misunderstood patriot, for whom the lives of innocent Vietnamese were at least as important as those of the Americans fighting on their soil, is one thing. Something else entirely is the path taken by Alison's former lover and comrade Gene (Slezak), who's done something truly unforgivable: gone conservative. A commentator, columnist, and author, he's forsaken the liberal ideals he once held in pursuit of the dollar and isn't above keeping Alison in jail to prove his public points about the rule of law. Unless, of course, she's as willing as he was to name her co-conspirators.

Toss in the little matter of Gene's dirty history, and Arthur's willingness to blackmail Gene into helping instead of hurting Alison, and you've armed the factions for a scorched-earth battle of moral equivalence. Allowing each side to deploy and question their own brutal tactics in the death match of ideas would be a distinct change from the one-sided speechifying that typifies topical dramas in these waning days of the George W. Bush era (even if they're not ostensibly about present day issues, as is the case here).

Unfortunately, such a struggle never emerges, which leaves Something You Did little more than a theatrical cheerleader for the lawless exchange of violent ideas that neither the Constitution nor the criminal justice system was ever designed to protect. But the writing is too sedate and studied to satisfy as straight-out agitprop; mild annoyance, rather than outright outrage, is as hot as it gets. The play also skids just short of melodrama, with Gleason bringing an angel's grace to the plucky but brittle heroine, Charney uncomfortably crammed into the elegant elder with a nasty streak, and an ideally sleazy Slezak - employing a carefully arched brow and a pensive, smarmy self-defensiveness - ensuring that Gene lives up to his description as someone who "swallows compassion like an anaconda digesting a large rat."

But the play itself slithers past two potentially more interesting characters, who help bring the other inflated concerns down to earth and could contribute still more. The first is Uneeq (pronounced "unique" and played by Portia), Alison's correctional officer and de facto friend, who's inherited the burdens of institutionalized discrimination Alison was once fought against. The other is Lenora (Adriane Lenox), the daughter of the police officer Alison's attack killed, and who's never come to terms with either his death or Alison's implicit involvement.

Both women thrive on different flavors of injustice, which highlights their roles as the true victims of attacks explosive and judicial and as symbols of what everyone else claims to be fighting for. Yet neither Portia nor Lenox lets her character drown in the world-weariness that threatens here, possessing too much pride to settle for the easy answers from anyone.

In this way, they soar above the bickering and threatening others, who can always find someone or something else to blame for the problems they created themselves. Alison, Arthur, and Gene's travails seem designed to excuse the worst transgressions as long as one never stoops to selling out. Uneeq and Lenora's stories of survival say much more about how we fight for the causes and people we love without having to sacrifice ourselves - or anyone else - along the way.


Something You Did
Through April 26
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Running Time: 90 minutes
Tickets online and Performance Schedule: TicketCentral