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Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did opened in New York while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still duking it out for the Democratic presidential nomination. Then-Sen. Obama’s casual former association with Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers became a political bomb for the candidate to defuse on his way to the White House.
Holtzman more or less predicted this scenario in his play, wherein an anti-war activist whose role in the unintentional killing of a policeman has kept her in jail for 30 years considers the price of her principles as her latest Hail Mary parole hearing approaches.
Holtzman has revised the script since 2008, but with Obama’s promotion from scrappy presidential hopeful to beleaguered incumbent, Theater J’s season-opener has acquired even more topical bite.
In fact, despite its vaporous title, Something You Did is such a chewy, nourishing drama it almost seems churlish to complain that Holtzman’s dialogue runs a little hot. As in, Chernobyl.
Churlish! And yet there are 10 or 12 lines here that ring so false as to jar you out of what is otherwise a substantive, involving show. The first comes when Arthur, a crusading attorney tries to reassure his jailed client, Alison: “I’m from Brooklyn!” he says. “I’m a street fighter! We do this MY WAY!” Alison, somehow, is consoled by this. Chalk it up to the fact she’s been sans TV privileges for the entire Steven Bochco-Dick Wolf era.
As Alison and Arthur, actors Deborah Hazlett and Norman Aronovic are more than agile enough to negotiate these tin-eared turns of phrase. Their castmates are largely spared them, with one huge exception: Poor Aakhu Freeman, playing the daughter of the cop Alison unwittingly helped kill, is given nothing to do but suffer nobly when she answers Alison’s letter with a visit.
The two women’s recollections of their final conversations with their fathers should make for a powerful scene, but Freeman’s loopy lines (“Dynamite makes your blood boil. My father was full of bubbles, like neglected soup!”) would confound any actor.
That’s as bad as things get. Eleanor Holdridge’s production rebounds so that what sticks with you is the conviction and dimensionality of Hazlett’s performance.
Even after most of her former comrades have betrayed or simply forgotten her, Alison remains loyal without seeming saintly: She lets us feel the privation of her long confinement without talking about it. A climactic monologue wherein she addresses her parole board is riveting. Noble and base motivations battle behind her eyes.
To be fair, there are a handful of memorably good lines, too: “The White House has gone a bit sepia,” Rick Foucheux’s Gene, a one-time revolutionary who’s curdled into a cynical and wealthy right-wing pundit, smirks. And yes, people in real life talk in on-the-nose declaratives and platitudes a lot more frequently than they speak in whip-smart Sorkinesque ripostes. (The play sometimes feels a lot like a West Wing two-parter written to win some high-profile guest star an Emmy.)
But we don’t go to the theater to hear real talk: We go to be given something to talk about. Something You Did delivers that in spades.