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Review - Something You Did & Two Men Talking

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I suppose the main difference between a violent protest and an act of terrorism is whether you're on the side of the person who set off the bomb or the person who was killed by it. In Primary Stages' premiere production of Willy Holtzman's drama, Something You Did, the person responsible for the bomb going off is played by the charismatic and understatedly graceful and eloquent Joanna Gleason, making the evening's morality conflict hardly a fair fight.

Gleason plays Alison, a character suggested by Kathy Boudin, who, as a member of the 1960s-70s radical movement Weather Underground, was involved with efforts to bomb U.S. government buildings in protest of American involvement in Vietnam and was eventually jailed for her part in a botched robbery of an armored car. In this fictionalized version, Alison has served 30 years in prison for her part in the setting off of a nail bomb in Grand Central Station, killing a police officer. Since that time she's become a model prisoner; friendly, helpful and an invaluable resource for legal advice, she takes part in AIDS counseling and has created a literacy program from her regular post at the prison library. At the play's outset she's assisting a guard in writing a letter to help her get out of a traffic ticket.

Alison's past attempts at parole have failed, partially for her refusal to name her co-conspirators, but with the recent death of her lawyer father her case has been handed to his partner, Arthur (Jordan Charney), who wants to employ the help of conservative pundant Gene (Victor Slezak), a ex-lover of Alison who may have something to lose if she tells everything she knows. Alison prefers to try and win the support of Lenora (Adriane Lenox), the daughter of the man who was killed.

Certainly the issues involving whether or not someone can ever "make up" for their intentional actions that result in an innocent person's violent death is the kind of controversy that good theatre thrives on, but if Holtzman's script leans heavily in support of Alison, director Carolyn Cantor's production ensures the fix is in with Slezak's sneering portrayal of the sarcastically self-righteous right-winger ("A neo-Conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged.") and the play's showcase scene between Gleason and the exceptional Lenox, where the prisoner, who placed herself on the front lines in the 1960s civil rights marches, humbly asks for mercy from the black woman.

A prison guard named Uneeq (pronounced as "unique"), played with an entertainingly blunt matter-of-factness by the singularly named actress, Portia, is the only character without a personal stake in the proceedings and provides refreshingly normal common sense observations. It's during her scenes with Gleason, and in Gleason's simple delivery of a monologue where she explains the patriotism of her actions to the parole board, where Something You Did becomes less of a discussion of issues and more of a play about people.

Photo of Joanna Gleason by James Leynse

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Back in 1974, a teacher at King David High School in Johannesburg instructed her students to turn to the person next to him and tell a story. A story about anything. Paul Browde and Murray Nossel happened to be sitting next to each other. Over thirty years later they're still telling each other stories; for over ten of them in front of audiences worldwide in performances of Two Men Talking.

Beginning with their shared schoolboy experiences, continuing through college and, after years of separation, finding circumstances reuniting them by chance in New York, Two Men Talking is a casual, semi-improvised ninety minutes where Browde and Nossel alternate in telling snippets of their criss-crossing lives. At first the stories are rather typical glimpses of colorful relatives, harsh parents, getting stoned in college and discovering one's sexuality. But when HIV enters the picture life choices take unexpected turns and the practice of story-telling becomes both a form of therapy and, when videotaped and sent to elected officials, a political weapon that accents AIDS statistics with memorable human faces.

As the two perform for the audience they are also performing for each other, continually trying out new ideas and freely commenting on the other's work; often making reference to how hearing one another's stories has affected them throughout the years. Though directed by Dan Milne, the gents never appear to be anything but completely natural and spontaneously themselves. The bare stage is thick with their mutual trust and friendship as they explore personal and dicey issues. It's a charming and engaging little show with a sincere message and a good heart.

Photo of Paul Browde and Murray Nossel

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As we all know from Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, here in the U.S. the players on the championship teams of our most popular sports get specially designed rings to commemorate their victory. And as we also know from Take Me Out, many of these rings are of pretty poor taste.

It's jewelry meant to intimidate and impress on the most testosterone-driven level. For example, this article explains how New York Giants star Michael Strahan feels he and his teammates deserve a "10-table ring" (a ring that could be seen 10 tables away in a restaurant) after their recent Super Bowl victory.

Imagine if the Tony Award winners got gaudy jewelry instead of spinning medallions. I think that would be cool. I could see Boyd Gaines relaxing at Angus in between Gypsy performances while passers-by stop and stare with respect at his Tony rings.

"I got this one in '94 for She Loves Me. Beat out Victor Garber, Terrence Mann and Jere Shea. The big one's for The Heidi Chronicles..."


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