We Love Arts: Something You Did

Theater J’s Something You Did is a perfectly serviceable little production of a little play that revolves around very little personal growth and revelations that aren’t very revelatory.

Update, 3:08p: If you’ve seen the play – or don’t intend to – and want the spoiler-ific version of this review, absent the deliberate efforts at avoiding revealing plot, you can check out my comment.

When City Paper wrote about Theater J subbing in this production for the original contender they quoted Artistic Director Ari Roth. He spoke about filling “a very particular slot – that of our High Holiday season-opener, hop-scotching the Days of Awe, a period of personal and collective reflection.”

Which makes it so odd that the one thing this play absolutely lacks is any hint of reflection from any of the characters.

There’s conflict aplenty, mind you, right from the get-go when Alison butts heads with a prison guard simultaneously with helping her write a letter. The letter is supposed to go to a traffic judge, begging forgiveness for a minor offense. It’s a nice little scene that you eventually find yourself wishing had been allowed to pay off.

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” Anton Chekhov said. In Something You Did the rifle is Alison’s complete mastery of the words of contrition combined with a lack of any personal feeling for what they really mean, or at least any ability to feel that regret in any context other than her own.

It wouldn’t be so frustrating if Holtzman didn’t write several moments where Alison’s lack of true contrition and real goal – parole – wasn’t so directly telegraphed. On several occasions, when pressed, Deborah Hazlett’s Alison stumbles into admitting that her overriding aim is to get out of prison, period. We’re clearly meant to see that this class warrior has a lot more lip service and slogans than true empathy. So why don’t we ever see a moment where this hinders her, or any realization of the people beyond herself?

Instead we get a lot of people shouting past each other, action that doesn’t serve the talents of any of the cast. The two folks who do best in the production are Aakhu Freeman as Lenora, the child of the officer whose death was caused by Alison’s actions, and Lolita-Marie as Uneeq the prison guard. It’s no coincidence that these are the two people least called upon to speechify and therefor most able to connect with the other actors. It’s less noticeable for the male leads who get to be quippy, particularly Aronovic’s Arthur, since clearly both men are holding the world at arm’s length with their put-on personalities. Alison’s character, the core of the play, suffers most from the talking at when she should be talking with someone.

Truly perplexing is what turns out to be the ultimate conflict; a question of who will make what deal and whether someone will keep a confidence that isn’t earned. Who cares? We never see the results of one action and we have no real idea whether the other would have had any impact, making the matters moot.

There’s nothing wrong with Something You Did. At 90 minutes without an intermission it blows by quickly and delivers a number of moments of pathos and humor. Getting to spend time with the sneaky and curmudgeonly Arthur is almost reason enough to go by itself. It’s the frustrations of unrealized potential that takes away from the experience. By not committing to either being about the process or about the morals it ends up serving neither, and that’s a shame.

Something You Did runs at Theater J through October 3rd.

1529 16th St NW
Washington DC, 20036

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


2 thoughts on “We Love Arts: Something You Did

  1. I saw Something You Did earlier this week and thoroughly enjoyed the play – this review is very surprising.

    The play is does not present matters in black and white, nor does it offer answers. That is part of its strength; the audience must think for itself.

    The characters do offer glimpses of reflection, but even if they didn’t, does that mean you, as an audience member, cannot reflect?

    This review reads as though the reviewer had an alternate arc in mind and was annoyed that the play didn’t follow it.

    The Theater J has once again staged a winner, with an all-around strong cast.

  2. I realize this review was a little vague at times and that was because I felt like it was unfair to reveal very much to readers who might plan on seeing the play. So let me try to address this with the prefix: BELOW THERE BE SPOILERS.

    I see why you might ask whether I had an alternate arc in mind, but I’d answer that what I really wanted was for the play to either commit to one arc or the other or really flesh them out properly.

    The first two minutes of the opening scene establish Alison’s mastery of how to make an effective apology. She points right to the one word in Uneeq’s letter that undermines her sincerity and she does it with a very masterful delivery that makes you think man, this must have been a talented orator for the cause.

    However it does leave you with the question – if you’re so good at this, how come you’re still in prison?

    So when Arthur comes along and they discuss her impending parole hearing and he says it’s going to go the same way unless you hand them something they want you think – aha, there is it. That’s why this otherwise contrite person with excellent delivery is still in prison while people with non-political offenses are let out.

    But then we get Alison driven to inarticulateness, and even after her indignant rant to Arthur about the trials of Uneeq’s life and class, we discover no, she’s more talk than substance. She just wants OUT. We are brought to question how devoted she really is to the cause. Is it just a mask she wears? Can she just take it off, as Gene did?

    To really gnaw on this possibility we need a conundrum for Alison in choosing one or the other. Drop this facade of devotion to your principals or embrace them and suffer the consequences.

    But we don’t get that. Alison’s decision, when the time comes, is whether or not to reveal Gene’s name. Whether to maintain loyalty to a confederate who has shown no loyalty to her.

    That might be enough by itself, but we don’t get a good reason to believe that there would be any fallout even if she chose to do so. The board she’s speaking to is revealed to be well in the bag for Gene – political allies of his. For this decision to have any real oomph there needs to be believable stakes.

    We get some discussion that maybe Gene’s financial situation isn’t as rock solid as it could be but it stops short of giving us a reason to believe that Alison’s possible revelation would torpedo that.

    Another item we see set up is the question of outside interference with the judicial process. Uneeq petitions the judge for forgiveness but it turns out that what really happened was that Arthur got the fix in. Her apology and contrition was irrelevant. Obviously this is ripe to be a parallel in Alison’s story… but it isn’t.

    Instead any soliciting on Alison’s part is right up front – Gene’s testimony. Alison doesn’t get it because she’s unwilling to provide testimony about a name of someone who worked on her case. That doesn’t work as a parallel for Uneeq because Uneeq made no sacrifices to get the intercession in her case – it happened because of the actions of other people. If it tarnishes her reputation it does so without her involvement.

    That could potentially have been paralleled in the story if Arthur – realizing that Alison will never give Gene what he wants – were to hand over the intern records from the firm and accomplish the guilt-by-attorney-association that Gene desires. It would be an end-run around the attorney-client privilege he can’t violate to tie Gene to Alison and would make Alison dirty despite her efforts.

    It would also more closely match the way things actually shook out in the Justice department/Gitmo lawyer case that Holtzman seems to be invoking in this storyline – in the end those names did come out.

    But this is never realized.

    As I said, it’s a fine little play. What keeps it from exceeding fine is this failure to have better developed themes or show some character growth. Everything above would also have been fine if we’d seen some character development but we don’t get that either.

    There’s no sense that Alison ever budges an inch, nor Gene or Arthur. The insight into their characters is pretty slim, if it exists at all. I might have cut it some more slack as a Rorschach test for the audience if thinks like Alison’s questionable empathy weren’t so obviously laid out for us.

    The only question we’re left to actually ponder is whether Alison gets her parole. What analysis does that leave us as an audience? It borders on cheap – what’s the point of leaving us with that question? Since the curtain comes down before we OR Alison knows how it turned out we don’t have any opportunity to wonder with her “was this worth it?” or “did I make the right choice?”

    In the end there’s nothing more to chew on beyond “do you think she got out?” If the play doesn’t provide us with any reason to believe one thing or the other then that’s not an opportunity for discussion, it’s simply an unanswered question.

    So, it’s fine. A way to pass 90 minutes. A grade of “C” is a passing mark, it’s just not anything to get excited about.