Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review of "Something You Did" at People's Light 10-22-06

Once in a great while, a new play comes along that is not only worth seeing, but immediately deserves consideration as our era’s contribution to the history of the theater. Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did, in world premiere at People’s Light and Theatre Co., is one of those plays.

Brilliantly set in a prison library (the very emblem of prison reform programs), Something plots the events leading up to the parole hearing of Alison Moulton, a 60’s radical implicated for her complicity in the bombing death of a New York City cop. Holtzman’s play closely mirrors the real events of Kathy Boudin, and includes analogs of two other prominent figures from the time, with the characters of Gene Biddle and Arthur Ross representing David Horowitz and Boudin’s lawyer, Leonard Weinglass respectively. The question, “What did you do in the sixties?” has real import here; as the play unfolds, multiple layers of treachery, hypocrisy, and culpability are revealed as the characters maneuver to either prevent or secure Moulton’s release.

For a script centered almost entirely upon politics and morality, the dialogue and action depicted are completely fluid, natural, and engaging. Even a staged reading of this play would captivate an audience; but under Abigail Adams’ sharp direction not a moment passes on that is unnecessary. Adams allows the plot’s manifold twists and revelations to unfold as naturally as the dialogue, handling a piece of political theatre with the deftness and precision of a well-crafted thriller.

The only distance between the audience and this play is in the portrayal of the characters. Amy Van Nostrand moves effortlessly throughout the wide range of emotions the role of Moulton demands, but while she hits all the notes expertly, she fails to present a coherent whole. As a woman consumed by her own fire in a world of pragmatists, Moulton is difficult to understand or identify with, and although we occasionally see her human side (longing to not die in prison), Nostrand’s performance fails to bridge this emotional chasm between her and the audience.

As Ross and Biddle, Jordan Charney and Tony Campisi, never fully engage their roles; instead they seem too invested in a nuanced replication of their real-life counterparts. Their attempts to inhabit these roles seem flat and forced, and both only come alive when the play demands that they drop cynicism or commitment, and show their humanity. At these moments, both men deliver spectacular performances, as the lawyer trying to free his partner’s daughter, and the former idealist trying to come to terms with the past he rejected.

The ensemble’s dynamics appear effortlessly, especially the supporting roles of Melanye Finister’s prison guard, and Cathy Simpson’s amazing and all-too-brief portrayal of Lenora Renshaw, daughter to the murdered policeman.

For the heady subject matter, Something is full of humor, witty banter (with “lawyer” used as a verb!), and language that is exact and uncompromising. The only omission: enough exposition to account for all the 60’s radical name-dropping. Never once does this play indulge in nostalgia, freeing Holtzman to unravel the consequences and culpability of the era. And while Holtzman condemns, he refuses to redeem Moulton’s criminal excess. But in portraying her refusal to compromise her beliefs to secure her freedom, Holtzman recovers the set of ideals and commitment to freedom where the 60’s began. In presenting the aftermath, he recaptures the hope, the idealism, and the very nature of the struggle itself. While showing those who have profited by turning their backs, he shows us how those same ideals can find redemption in the unrepentant who still do good by them.

No comments: