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Something You Did

Willy Holtzman's new play admirably deals with complex issues, but doesn't achieve its full potential. logo
Victor Slezak as Gene and Joanna Gleason
in Something You Did
(© James Leynse)
Willy Holtzman's new play Something You Did -- making its New York premiere courtesy of Primary Stages under Carolyn Cantor's direction -- admirably wrestles with complex issues of accountability, idealism, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, clunky dialogue and uneven performances don't allow the work to achieve its full potential.

As the play opens, Alison (Joanna Gleason) is up for parole. She's served nearly 30 years in prison for a bombing she participated in as a member of a 1960s radical organization that resulted in the death of an African-American police officer. She appears to be a model prisoner, and is well regarded by both inmates and prison guards alike. Her lawyer Arthur (Jordan Charney) wants to enlist the help of Gene (Victor Slezak), her former colleague turned neo-Conservative pundit, to help make a convincing case to the parole board. But Alison and Gene's prior history is complicated by both past sexual relations and present-day ideological rifts.

In his crafting of Alison and Gene, Holtzman has drawn obvious inspiration from real-life figures Kathy Boudin -- a Weather Underground member convicted and later paroled for her participation in a botched armored car heist that killed three men -- and right-wing pundit David Horowitz. However, the playwright has fictionalized enough details to transform them into his own creations, and wisely avoided making them either simplistic heroes or villains. Alison's crime is abhorrent, but does that mean she doesn't deserve a second chance? Gene makes statements that could easily be construed as racist, and is by no means treated sympathetically by author or production. And yet, he also makes very reasoned arguments that are difficult to dismiss.

Sadly, several of the political discussions that take place within the show are awkwardly presented and don't allow for enough character development outside of the ideological frameworks that are being established. On the plus side, Holtzman gets in some great one-liners, such as Gene's comment that "a neo-Conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged," to describe the character's political conversion.

Gleason faces an uphill battle in her characterization, as nearly everything she says sounds like rhetoric. It's not until a late-in-the-play speech to the parole board that she finds a connection to Alison's emotional core. Slezak could also stand to bring more shades to his role, particularly in the tedious scene between him and Charney's lackluster Arthur that is supposed to establish Gene's character.

Fortunately, the production also features two stellar performances in supporting roles. Portia, as prison guard Uneeq, brings out the play's humor as well as its warmth and humanity. Adriane Lenox, who won a Tony Award for a single scene in Doubt, impresses with yet another cameo appearance, this time as the daughter of the police officer slain in the bombing, who comes to visit Alison in prison. Her barely suppressed rage and desire for resolution is clearly evident throughout this tautly paced scene which is the clear dramatic highlight of the production.

The provocative subject matter of Something You Did -- which also touches upon notions of patriotism, terrorism, and activism -- is bound to provoke discussions following the show. But the play itself is only partially successful in making these important issues dramatically compelling.

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