Volume 77 / Number 43 | March 26 - April 1, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Photo by James Leynse
Portia as Uneeq, Jordan Charney as Arthur, Victor Slezak as Gene, and Joanna Gleason as Alison in “Something You Did”
When does a bomb stop being symbolic?
Déja vu all over again all over again.
By Jerry Tallmer
“As I walked in to rehearsals yesterday,” says Willy Holtzman on March 7, “somebody told me about the bomb that had gone off in the middle of the night at the recruiting station in Times Square. I was fascinated, to say the least. Events have overtaken art, once again.”
The rehearsals are for “Something You Did,” a play by Holtzman that summons up visceral memories of the storm-tossed years of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, “This Land Is Our Land,” Peekskill, Freedom Summer, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, Vietnamall that.
Its central figure is Alison Moulton, a lifelong radical now in her 50s and still serving time for her part in the death of a New York City police officer from a nail-bomb explosion in Grand Central Station 30 years earlier. As the play opens she is once again petitioning the parole board for her release, at long last, from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. In this and other respects she could well remind the playgoer of the real-life Kathy Boudin, who in the 1970s fled in the night from a bomb-blasted 11th Street townhouse in Greenwich Village, and then, after years on the run, went to jail for her role in the killing of an armored-car security guard. That tragic act of violence was immediately followed at a roadblock in Rockland County, New York, by the murder of the police officers, one of them like the play’s Grand Central victim, black.
“This play,” says the man who wrote it, “is not about Kathy Boudin, but she figures prominently in it.”
It was in fact inspired by a column of Clyde Haberman’s in The New York Times about Norma Hill, a woman who was in a car with her mother just behind the Weathermen’s getaway car at that roadblock. They threw Norma Hill out of the car, and then one of them drove off in that vehicle with Norma’s mother still in it (the mother was then also thrown out, unhurt).
“Flash forward 20 years,” says Holtzman, “Norma Hill is now an AIDS counselor at Bedford Hills, and will support Kathy Boudin’s petition for parole, though it was not love at first sight between them, and that’s an understatement, but then they gradually got to know each other.”
Tony winner Joanna Gleason stars as Alison Moulton in “Something You Did,” in performance through April 26, under Carolyn Cantor’s direction, as a Primary Stages presentation at 59E59 Theatres.
Holtzman has split the Norma Hill Persona into two characters, one of them the unforgiving mother of the policeman killed by that bomb in Grand Central Station. She’s played by Adriane Lenox, who most deservedly won her own Tony Award playing another mother in “Doubt.”
An actress with the single name of Portia plays a tough-minded, cynical, trustyan inmate herselfwho “don’t want no thank-you’s” and bears the wonderful name Uneeq. “Years ago, as a teacher in the South Bronx, I had a student named Uneeq. This is a tribute to her,” says the playwright.
There are two other vivid characters: Arthur Ross (actor Jordan Charney), a tough old civil-liberties lawyer who might have been the partner of Kathy Boudin’s famed father, constitutional defense attorney Leonard Boudin; and Gene Biddle, Alison’s onetime lover companion through the terrors of Freedom Summer in Mississippi, but now, for many years, a right-wing neo-con columnist for whom the whole 1960s were but “a themepark” and Alison herself but “the poster girl for the failure of the Left.” And as for the blacksthe Stokely Carmichaelswho turned against their allies, the Jews…enough said.
This is the fourth play of Willy Holtzman’s that’s been produced by Primary Stages. He was born June 26, 1951, in Olivette, Missouri; his father in the furniture business, his mother a travel agent.
Their son was 18 when he started at Wesleyan University in the fateful year 1968.
“May Day 1968,” he says. “We were plunged right into it. The Panther trial was going on down in New Haven. A lot of violence in the area. A firebombing on campus.”
But there was also, at Wesleyan, a teacher named Cheryl Crawfordone of the founders of the Group Theatre of the 1930s and ’40s, and of the Actors Studio after that.
“Years later, when I wrote the book for an Off-Broadway musical called ‘The Housewives’ Cantata,’ Cheryl Crawford lent her name to it. She’d decided I should be a playwright. Saw some glimmer or something in me. Would take me to opening nights and call me the next morning to ask, ‘What do you think?’ Then she got me in the Actors Studio writers’ and directors’ unit, where everyday I learned from the likes of Robert Anderson, Pete Gurney, Sidney Kingsley, and Joe Mankiewicz.”
Holtzman’s wife, Sylvia, is a textbook editor; their daughter runs a Jewish cultural organization in Seattle, Washington. He says the cast of “Something You Did” is “way better than this playwright deserves.” And as for the explosion at or around 3:40 a.m. Thursday, March 6, 2008, at the recruiting station in Times Square, at least it wasn’t a nail bomb unlike those that blew up the townhouse on West 11th Street all those manyor not so manyyears ago.
“Something You Did.” By Willy Holtzman. Directed by Carolyn Cantor. A Primary Stages production in performance through April 26 at 59E59 Theaters at that address, (212) 753-5959, 59E59.org.