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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In his new play, The True, Sharr White gives her another complex woman to inhabit. And as Laurie Metcalf did in his The Other Place, Falco makes the most of this fine vehicle for showcasing her acting chops live rather than on screen.
But, given the subject, can even Ms. Falco, her very able colleagues and the New Group's Artist Director Scott Elliott's fluid direction make a play about Albany machine politics back in 1977 really fresh and exciting? Does the story of an Albany housewife's passionate support of her city's charismatic mayor have any relevance for theater goers drowning in more current political stories?
Well, despite being a bit dated and too talky, yes.
The True is certainly fact based enough to live up to its title and it's chockablock full of back-room talk. However, Mr. White is a playwright and not a historian or biographer. He's therefore used his own creative vision to dramatize the relationship between the mayor and his unoffial adviser as well as the events that marked the beginning of the eventual end of the political machine that kept him in office for a remarkably long time.
Though the play's characters are dead and not well known historical figures outside their immediate geographical orbit, White's interest in them was activated by a more current event. That was in 2009 when Kirsten Gillibrand, the granddaughter of Falco's character, became our Junior Senator from New York. And Gillibrand's current visibility as an activist in the MeToo movement does make a case for women like her grandmother's role paving the way for women to be more than political help-meets.
That said, this isn't a "we've come a long way" feminist story. Falco's Dorothea Noonan is certainly a powerful personality, and The True's pivotal character. But this is essentially a play about a complicated three-way friendship between Dorothea, her husband Peter (Peter Scolari) and Erastus Corning (Michael McKean).
Scolari sensitively and believably portrays a simple man dealing with his not so simple emotions about the wife he adores, the friend he values and enjoys— as well as his conflicted feelings about how her devotion to Corning and political activism short-changes their togetherness. His scenes alone with her beautifully reveal the complexities of their marriage and respective psyches.
Since we see Corning only at a juncture in his life when he feels insecure, McKean doesn't get to tap into the charisma he must have had to win all those elections. Still, since the scenario also takes us to his mansion up the hill from the Noonans, we do understand why this man with his patrician background finds the outspoken and often vulgar Dorothea an attractive respite from his background and his more socially correct wife.
The 1977 time frame finds the Noonans and Corning no longer young. Their friendship dates back even before Corning became mayor for what seems like a life-long term —that is, until an unanticipated challenger beclouds the next election and their closeness.
The plot unfolds over the course of nine scenes. The first takes us to an apparently typical late night visit to the Noonan's home by Corning. The visit ends atypically with Erastus, unnerved by the sudden uncertainty about his future, pulling the plug on Dorothea's role as his confidante. His reason: to quench the perceptions about his and her personal relationship. As Corning feels he can no longer ignore the gossip, so the Noonans too can no longer leave its menage-a-trois implications ignored and undiscussed.
Of course, Dorothea is not someone Corning can easily push aside. Sure, she's very much a traditional woman— a wife, mother and grandmother who cooks and is working on her sewing machine even as she's talking politics. But she's also established herself in the forefront of behind the scenes Democratic party activists.
White does use that sewing machine to tip his hat to his play's inspirational source. That's when he has Dorothea describing her latest sewing project as a culotte for her granddaughter Kirsten and she seems to be foreseeing a day when the woman her little granddaughter will become won't just be wearing pants but doing everything men wearing them now do.
Before the problematic primary finally rolls around and we learn whether Dorothea will not only regain her confidante's role — and Corning his mayoralty— we see her in pas-de-deux confrontations with several other characters: Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald), the attractive, younger state senator who is challenging Erastus in the upcoming primary, and Charlie Ryan (John Pankow). Even though they each have just one scene, both Fitzgerald and Pankow are seasoned actors who make compelling impressions.
A third actor making the most of a single scene is Austin Cauldwell as Bill Mccormick, a young man for whom Dorothea has gone to bat so that he can bring fresh blood to the party. The dinner at which her misconceptions about his background and appreciation of that opportunity, is a comic highlight.
Derek McLane's scenic design effectively takes us in and out the various locations. Eddie Falco gets to wear several period perfect outfits courtesy of Clint Ramos.
Falco's Dorothea staunchly denies that there's anything sexual between her and the Mayor which wouldn't be necessary if if this was a play about a politician in office today. Voters who now tolerate lies, financial and other self-serving behavior would hardly balk at a little hanky panky.
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The True by Sharr White
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Austin Cauldwell (Bill McCormick), Edie Falco (Dorothea Polly Noonan), Glenn Fitzgerald (Howard C. Nolan), Michael McKean (Erastus Corning II), John Pankow (Charlie Ryan),Peter Scolari (Peter Noonan), Tracy Shayne (Voice)
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design & Music Composition: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
The New Group at Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre 480 West 42nd Street
From 9/04/18; opening 9/20/18; closing 10/28/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/14/18 press preview
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