Theatre Review: THE TRUE
The True by Sharr White
Directed by Scott Elliott
Produced by The New Group
Off Broadway @ The Pershing Square Signature Center
Reviewed by Scott Klavan, Preview, Saturday matinee, September 8, 2018
With his recent play The Other Place, and his new one, The True, Sharr White is almost single-handedly bringing back the Pot-Boiler. This is not meant to be a condescending, jaded, or negative comment, but a grateful one. Once a staple of pre-TV Broadway, the soap-opera-ish juicy plot-oriented drama, usually with a female lead, plays that aspired to give an audience an enjoyable day/night out with some laughs and tears and a few fleeting moments of soft provocation, have become virtually obsolete. But White’s works fit into this fading mold and while The True doesn’t venture far or deep enough, its tale of upstate New York politics in the 1970s, with terrific performances by lead Edie Falco, and a veteran supporting cast, involves and entertains us for nearly two hours of intermissionless theater.
The story revolves around driven, outspoken Polly Noonan, the longtime unofficial adviser and confidante to veteran Democratic Albany Mayor Erastus Corning (Michael McKean). With the death of the head of the Democratic Party, loyal to Erastus, there is a shake-up within leadership, and ambitious fixer Charlie Ryan (John Pankow) puts up his own candidate, Howie Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) to challenge Corning in the 1977 primary. The married Mayor, worried about nagging rumors that his platonic friendship with Polly is a romantic one, ends their relationship. Reeling, Polly confers with her long-suffering businessman husband Peter (Peter Scolari). Dogged by the prejudice against women that has kept her from full participation in the campaign, she tries mightily to work behind the scenes to regain influence with the Mayor, struggling in the polls against Nolan. The election battle unfolds in a New York where the Irish power base is being eroded by changing demographics and where old-style Machine strategies of arm-twisting and half-legal patronage deals are being rejected by the new generation.
The acting is a godsend to the play and production. If it’s possible to say that an actress who has starred in two major TV shows and won a bunch of awards is underrated, I would say that about Edie Falco. Here, she keeps proving that she’s one of the best contemporary craftspeople, as she makes Polly abrasive yet vulnerable and is at all times credible and human as the tough old-school wife chafing at the rules that limit her sex from full achievement in the outside world. The play gives Polly/Falco all the major moments, but supporting players McKean, Scolari and Pankow get the most of what they are allotted; they make their parts as colorful, fiery and sensitive as possible.
The True is being presented by The New Group, respected as actively developing and showcasing new plays and revivals, often with star leads, since 1995. (The reviewer caught it at a preview for what is listed as a limited run.) Directed by New Group Artistic Director Scott Elliott, it is using the upstairs Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the fantastic three-theater, three-story Signature Theatre complex, designed by Frank Gehry, on far west 42nd St. As the Griffin has only 191 seats, this Off-Broadway show is almost certainly a tryout for Broadway. Here, scenic design by Derek McLane of the various Albany locales, the Noonan, Ryan and Mayor’s homes, is smooth and functional, if a little cramped on the modest-sized stage. Elliott’s direction is on the standard side, with a predictable triangular set-up for most scenes- broken up by a very clever late entrance featuring a previously unseen character. But pacing and interaction are sharp and the story, unlike many current 90-120 mins plays that have eliminated an act break, keeps us watching. Throughout, in the staging and writing, focus is squarely on Polly.
And that is where the play pleases us by fitting into a nostalgic groove and disappoints us by not breaking out of it. Playwright White does a good job keeping Polly’s tactics to help the Mayor, and herself, detailed and believable. He roots the show firmly in the past and behavior and conduct (with great costumes by Clint Ramos) don’t deviate into winking allusions to the modern-day. Nor does he beat us over the head with the struggle between the Personal and Political, Selfishness/Selflessness in Polly and America’s life; Polly’s sublimation is all over the play but we never stop to highlight it with unsubtlety. Her ability to lead and negotiate deals and policies are obviously superior to the men around her, but White doesn’t belabor the point, only has the character state the frustration of her exclusion as a woman in a touchingly plaintive confrontation with Corning. A scene where Polly tries vainly to interest shallow young local man Bill McCormick (Austin Caldwell) in a lowly political job, is the best, effectively illustrating how her own fierce parochialism is hampering her understanding of young people’s laissez-faire attitudes towards the local traditions and “pay your dues” service of the past.
But by repressing the world and expression of the play, by keeping The True a Star Vehicle, an update of the kind of actress-focused, essentially benign melodramas that were once commonly led by Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, et al, in the 1920s-50s, we get a mildly diverting experience, rather than a scorching and moving one. (White’s similarly solid/limited The Other Place had a short run on Broadway but earned a Tony Award nomination for lead Laurie Metcalf in 2013.) For example, does Polly have to be in almost every second? A scene with the men really going at it might have expanded the plot’s scope. The play wants to go into the backrooms, but the racism/sexism of the time is kept safe; showing us the harsh real deal would have added bite. The Women’s Movement is never mentioned and given that Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Elizabeth Holtzman, Carol Bellamy, Geraldine Ferraro, and others were running for office or serving then, at least in New York City, having Polly be challenged by a New Woman on her turf could have faced her inner and outer dilemmas head-on, offering compellingly awkward and wrenching drama, rather than protecting Polly and side-stepping it. (It might be noted that some of the time-line seems off and if the references were understood by the reviewer, Falco looks ten years too young for the part; at points, the action of the story does seem more likely to have occurred in 1967, rather than ten years later.)
A random look at a past year finds that in 1953, there were several dozen non-musical plays on Broadway. They weren’t all classics. (Remember A Date With April, Dead Pigeon, Gently Does It, or Horses In Midstream ? No? Why not?) Today, there are a handful of straight plays, sometimes less. This math, the diminishing audience, the price of production and so, tickets, has taken away support for, and the luxury of Pot-Boilers in our 2018 theater. (Not to mention the number of dramas on broadcast, cable, and Netflix/Amazon.) It puts pressure on a well-handled, mostly satisfying work like The True to be bigger and stronger than it is, particularly if it tries to move crosstown. Polly might sympathize: the play is a victim of history.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He currently teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.