April 2, 2008

"Something You Did" Doesn't Quite Do It

It doesn’t take much to get baby boomers bragging about the great things they did in the Sixties—Ending the Vietnam War! Kickstarting the feminist movement! Throwing out sexual inhibitions! But the books, movies and plays looking back at that period tend to take a more rueful view, often focusing on the doings of extreme groups like the Weathermen, the young radicals who split away from Students for a Democratic Society and took up political terrorism.

Nearly half of the Weatherman were female and women like Kathy Boudin and Bernardine Dohrn did play leadership roles but I’m not quite sure why most of the fictional stories dealing with such groups seem to find their most compelling characters in female protagonists like Merry, the radical bomber in Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” or Anna, the unyielding revolutionary in Hari Kunzru’s crackerjack new novel “My Revolutions”. Now joining them is Alison, the heroine in Willy Holtzman’s new play, Something You Did, about a one-time revolutionary who collaborated in a bombing that killed a black cop and put her behind bars in a maximum security prison, where, 30 years later, she is now desperate for parole.

There’s obvious drama in such stories and the cast for the Primary Stages’ production of Something You Did—particularly Joanna Gleason who gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Alison—keeps you involved in this version of the tale. But the deck comes stacked in this play. Alison is a model prisoner—tutoring not only her sister inmates but also her guard (played with good-humored verve by the one-named actress Portia). She maintains her principles—refusing to attend her beloved father’s funeral because she will not go in chains. She is truly sorry for the life she helped take. And, of course, she doesn’t name names, not even when her lawyer, genially played by Jordan Charney, tries to persuade her that doing so will help win her freedom. I’m not giving anything away; this is all made clear during the first five minutes or so of the play.

And that was the problem for me. Right from the start, the show wears its heart on its sleeve and its ideals emblazoned on its chest. Adrianne Lenox brings the same desperate passion that won her a Tony in Doubt to the part of the dead policeman’s daughter but her few words don't stand a chance against Alison’s saintly in-prison behavior. Victor Slezak plays a former radical turned neo-con who argues for the other side but his character is a standard Snidely Whiplash.

Holtzman does get points for taking on a subject bigger than the family relationships that provide fodder for so many contemporary plays but he and director Carolyn Cantor also lose some for pandering to the conventional thinking of the boomers who now make up the majority of the theater going audience for serious drama. Isn't art supposed to challenge us to see things differently? My friend Bill and I were surrounded by grey heads nodding in agreement to Alison’s aria-speeches during the performance we attended. But I think I might have liked Something You Did more if Holtzman had done something more to allow me to like Alison a little less.

No comments: