REVIEW: Edie Falco in “The True”
One key takeaway of “The True”, a new political drama by Sharr White presented in a New Group world premiere production at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is that Edie Falco makes a mesmerizing impression on stage—and should grace us more often in this medium.
The other takeaway is that it is really hard to accurately and compellingly capture the give and take of politics, and the contours of a specific political milieu, without avoiding heaps of unrealistic expository conversation and establishing investment-worthy stakes.
Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” (2014), about LBJ’s first year as president, was masterful in these regards. The effort here is middling, and it frustrates a sometimes poignant but too often jejune portrait of forgotten political history drawn from the parochial headlines of yesteryear.
The scene is 1977 Albany. Ms. Falco plays Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, a real life, foul-mouthed political operative (grandmother of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) who was the confidante—and, as gossiped about, potential lover—of long-time Albany “Mayor for life” Erastus Corning, II (Michael McKean), serving as his secretary then as a mother and grandmother who moonlit as his behind the scenes fixer.
The play centers on the outer-years of Corning’s career as his once iron-clad clench of power begins to weaken in the face of age, declining health, and a shifting political culture marked by the soft dismantling of a once paradigmatic Democratic Party machine operation following the death of its long-time boss, Dan O’Connell.
The outlines of the plot are true. In 1977 Corning did receive his first and only primary challenge from State Senator Howard C. Nolan Jr. (Glenn Fitzgerald) following O’Connell’s death. The details, however, are open for debate. Despite its true story and political themes, Mr. White’s play is a fictionalized domestic drama concerning Polly’s relationships with her “apolitical” husband, Peter (Peter Scolari), and career-long confidante, Mayor Corning.
After Corning shuns Polly following 40 years of working side-by-side, she continues to maneuver behind his back, though wounded, to assure his victory in the coming primary. Liberal with verbal threats and easy with a sharp elbow, Polly is no woman to cross, and she is a trailblazer in a time when men dominated politics (imagine it being even worse than now).
Despite the fierce magnetism of Ms. Falco’s performance—and she is truly terrific—the mechanics of Polly’s machinations are rarely, if ever, compelling, and her motivations are never sketched beyond a base desire for power, a personal penchant for loyalty, and a more nebulously defined value of helping people. Without this grounding, and divorced from its immediate context, so much of the play’s interpersonal drama amounts to a nothing burger.
What is surely meant as a thriller fails to thrill. The most touching and universal passage of the play is an honest late night conversation between Polly and Peter where Peter reveals long-pent up feelings about Polly’s unusual relationship with Mayor Corning, and Polly grapples with what the changing of the guard means for someone whose whole life has been spent in the daily, rough and tumble of politics.
For those who selflessly devote themselves to a higher cause for the entirety of a career, that moment of realizing it is the next generation’s time to take the torch can be bittersweet. As a result, most hang on too long (see: Mayor Corning). Polly suddenly faces loneliness and purposelessness in middle age—a phenomenon not too uncommon among women, especially in her time.
This passage, though intriguing, is but a moment, and we soon return to the drudge of Polly’s political work, which makes the one hour and forty five intermission-less minutes of the play feel much longer than they actually are. That pace is not aided by director Scott Elliott’ sedentary staging on Derek McLane’s clever and attractive set.
Nearly the entire play consists of arrangements of seated conversations between parties in formulations that sound off like a Dr. Seuss book: in a living room, in a car, on a couch, in a chair. At one point, Polly asks “can I sit?”; I was tempted to shout “you’ve done nothing but!
Ultimately, the play ends where it begins, just as the 1977 primary itself was a momentary blip in Corning’s career, which then trotted along until his death in office in 1983. Those straining to forge a connection between the Corning-Nolan primary and the recent Cuomo-Nixon primary are doing just that: straining. The political dynamics at work in this play are mostly antiques.
This hyper-specific episode in Albany politics is an odd choice for a play, and ends up offering not much more than a boring look at the process of machine politics of days gone by.
Bottom Line: in “The True”, playwright Sharr White dramatizes the 1977 Albany Mayoral primary election from a domestic, interpersonal perspective. Edie Falco is fiercely magnetic as real life, foul-mouthed political operative Polly Noonan, but the play itself is rarely compelling and suffers from sedentary staging and unrealistic expository conversations that explain complex—and fundamentally uninteresting—political dynamics.
The New Group
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: one hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 20, 2018
Final Performance: October 28, 2018