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NEW YORK – In her television and film work, whether it’s Two and a Half Men or Legally Blonde, Holland Taylor’s delicious specialty has been distilling WASP acerbity into the driest of human martinis. Her squillionaire art patron on The L Word was a pearl. So it’s a fun change of pace to watch this wily pro tackle a salty, straight-shootin’ Texan gal in Ann, Taylor’s affectionate memorial to the late Governor Ann Richards. What this bravura display of comic timing and character immersion is missing, however, is a play – let alone one with some conflict.
While being a female liberal Democrat governor in a macho Republican state made her an anomaly, Richards is perhaps best remembered on the national political stage for her star-making keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Her rise from humble roots in Waco, Texas, makes for colorful material when sprinkled with the choice anecdotes for which this born raconteur was famed. In an age when the truly candid politician is all but extinct as a species, the BS-averse Richards seems an exotic bird.
Outfitted by costumer Julie Weiss in a matron-chic cream-colored suit and crowned with a signature platinum meringue that looks so shellacked it might be bulletproof, Taylor nails her subject – from the folksy delivery and sly humor right down to the twinkle in her eye and the frequent habit of standing with her hands planted on the small of her back. However, this solo party piece, which Taylor wrote as well as performs, cries out for an editor and a more hands-on director.
The nominal appointee in that role is Benjamin Endsley Klein, whose input is pretty much invisible in a show that appears entirely piloted by its star. Stretched over two acts running a full two hours, almost every scene is at least 10 minutes too long. And while Ann is serviceably framed as a commencement speech given by Richards late in life at a Texas college, that setup is so inconsistently managed that the play dissolves into a dramaturgical shambles, its multiple endings capped by that ever-ready standby, John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
The absence of collaborators willing to shape and refine the material wouldn’t be so bothersome if Taylor weren’t so brilliant in the part. Soon after launching into her opening remarks, she steps out from behind the lectern to work her audience with a wink and a smile. Part standup comic and part motivational speaker, she recounts her childhood during the Great Depression, acquiring her grit from her flinty, impossible-to-please mother and her ease among the good ole boys from her beloved father, whose taste for dirty jokes she also inherited.
Richards married her high school sweetheart, a civil rights lawyer, and had four children. But being the perfect housewife left her unfulfilled. Observing the Waco Women’s Club motto, “If we rest, we rust,” she got her feet wet in community work before becoming a political strategist, notably getting behind women candidates. A functioning alcoholic, she checked into rehab, or “drunk school,” at the urging of friends and family, while bouncing from the County Commissioner job to State Treasurer, and then after a particularly brutal campaign, to the governorship in 1990. Her marriage ended by mutual consent along the way.
This is quite a story, and with the wickedly engaging Taylor at the wheel, it contains the rudiments of a terrific solo vehicle. The play’s best part is when we shift out of speech mode into a day in Richards’ life as governor. Barely pausing to draw breath, she juggles a controversial stay-of-execution decision, flirts with Bill Clinton on the phone while advising on a Supreme Court appointment, fine-tunes plans for a family Thanksgiving and delivers a perfectly formed pro-choice sound bite to a reporter on cue. It’s implicitly understood that this hectic pace is the norm.
The only other voice we hear is that of Richards’ executive assistant Nancy (a prerecorded Julie White) punctuating her calls. So it’s a testament to Taylor’s vigorous command of the role that she conjures the illusion of being at the center of a tornado of human activity. Clearly a tough taskmaster, Richards barks her disapproval at a staffer one minute and then has Nancy add him to the list of gift recipients (cowboy boots from a girlfriend’s outlet) the next. The actress-playwright’s admiration for her subject could not be clearer.
While the lack of economy is evident throughout, where Ann really runs into trouble is when it reverts to direct address and the framework falls apart. Recapping Richards’ life after leaving the governor’s office at age 61, the play succumbs to the telling-not-showing syndrome. Taylor hurtles through the subject’s post-political career of speaking engagements and consultancy work before jumping to Richards commenting from beyond the grave on her own memorial service. (She died of esophageal cancer in 2006.) It then lurches back to the commencement speech for a hasty wrap-up. The messiness of the writing here is a poor partner to the elegant incisiveness of the performance.
Taylor’s intention is admirable in shining a spotlight on a woman driven by a heroic passion for public service. But the longer the show runs on, the more its lack of shading becomes apparent. She peppers the dialogue with pandering audience nods to racial and gender equality and gun laws. But she glosses over the potentially juicy stuff such as the dirty politics that tried to keep Richards out of office the first time and succeeded when she ran for a second term. It also might have been interesting to include a wry acknowledgment that Richards’ failed re-election bid gave her the dubious distinction of opening the door to the political career of George W. Bush.
However, this is liberal comfort food, plain and simple. Taylor could use some help as a playwright, but her charisma as an actor and her uncanny sense of her audience almost earn her a pass.
Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (runs through Sept. 1)
Cast: Holland Taylor
Director: Benjamin Endsley Klein
Playwright: Holland Taylor
Set designer: Michael Fagin
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Lighting designer: Matthew Richards
Sound designer: Ken Huncovsky
Projection designer: Zachary Borovay
Presented by Bob Boyett, Harriet Newman Love, Jane Dubin, Jack Thomas/Mark Johannes and Amy Danis, Sarahbeth Grossman, Jon Cryer/Lisa Joyner, Minerva Productions, Lary Brandt/Brian Dorsey, Kate Hathaway/Allison Thomas, Jennifer Isaacson, Kevin Bailey, in association with Lincoln Center Theater
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