This is the kind of character-driven, vividly plotted play that might’ve been written in the era of O’Neill, Williams, and Miller. Dialogue is kitchen sink real. Though set 36 years ago in Albany, New York, political machinations are extremely recognizable at a time when corruption, cronyism and party shake-ups are front and center in the news. The production is top notch beautifully directed and cast with theater veterans who bring solidity and nuance.
Mayor Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean) is hanging out at the home of best friends Dorothy “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco) and her husband Peter (Peter Scolari) as he’s done for over forty years. (Wife Betty is mentioned only in so far as eventually getting home to her and later briefly seen to great effect.)
Edie Falco, Peter Scolari
Conversation centers on the upcoming Democratic Primary. Once an active campaign worker, Polly has become a barely-behind-the-scenes mover and shaker, the mayor’s confidante. Her life revolves around participation. To call the character aggressive or controlling minimizes this foul-mouthed bulldozer (with a good intentions). Peter’s interest is second-hand. Long existing rumors about Polly and Erastus are rising again. Both deny anything inappropriate. Peter appears to conditionally accept this even in light of a less than close marriage.
Erastus’s father-figure-mentor-protector, Dan, has just died. He’s in mourning. Eyes firmly on the prize, Polly allows little time for the indulgence. Mayor Corning, she says, has become complacent (after 35 years) and should recognize the danger of inevitable challenge by Bill McCormick’s (Austin Caldwell) younger candidate, Howard Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald).
“Regular people don’t give a shit what’s happening behind closed doors if their lives are working, but their lives aren’t working!” Polly warns. It will take you a few minutes to get your bearing. The piece often has characters naturalistically speaking over one another.
John Pankow, Edie Falco
When Erastus tells Polly, “with deep regret” that he has to end his “association” with her (the couple), she’s blindsided. Is it Betty? The rumors? He says no…and absents himself. Determined the mayor should win despite naïveté, Polly begins to work clandestinely with Erin Brockovich-like single mindedness. Influence is exerted, deals offered, narrowly veiled threats made. Nor can she do without face to face contact. Relationships and compromises become clear.
Recently, I’ve seen several plays where writers have painted themselves into corners using easy ends. The last scene here is not only adroitly conceived but directed with terrific imagination.
Erastus Corning II was, in fact, mayor of Albany for 41 years. Throughout there was conjecture that his relationship with closest advisor Polly Noonan was more than professional. The two were extraordinarily close. In fact, Corning left the Noonans his well heeled insurance business. (Both people are deceased.) The central event here, a challenge in Albany’s 1977 Democratic primary, is also true.
Edie Falco, Michael McLean
None of this would have come to light but for 2009’s selection of Noonan’s granddaughter, Kirsten E. Gillibrand, to fill Hilary Clinton’s United States Senate seat when she became Secretary of State. Playwright Sharr White seized upon what seemed not particularly colorful facts and turned them into an arresting, intermissionless play that whips by. We recognize and care about the people, even occasionally laughing.
The company is spot on. Watching Edie Falco (Polly), Michael McKean (Erastus), and Peter Scolari (Peter), play off one another is theatrical heaven. There’s not a second of incredulity. Falco is a Master Class. Portrayal of the brassy Polly overflows with as much heart as determination. The character’s mind works fast, pivoting almost visibly. Small blows are observable. McKean’s internal conflict, necessary demeanor, and emotional fatigue are palpable. Peter’s gradual articulation of the here-to-for unspoken is immensely deft as manifest by Scolari.
The reliable John Pankow manifests ward boss Charlie Ryan with pithy authenticity. Glenn Fitzgerald’s Howard Nolan is a bit too generic. Also featuring an effective turn by Austin Cauldwell as Bill McCormick in a wonderfully well realized scene.
Director Scott Elliott makes us feel like flies on the wall. Everything is motivated and revealed with immediacy and focus. Body language contributes. Pacing couldn’t be better.
Derek McLane’s sets slide in and out with beneficial fluency. The Noonan’s horrific wallpaper is a sure sign of the times. A wall of books, however, all the same size and coloration, look decidedly fake.
Costumes by Clint Ramos fit time, place, and economy. Polly’s dresses and wig are purposefully dreadful.
Photos by Monique Carboni
Opening: Michael McKean, Edie Falco, Peter Scolar
The New Group presents
The True by Sharr White
Directed by Scott Elliott
Through October 21, 2018
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
The New Group