'The True': Theater Review
Edie Falco and Michael McKean star in the world premiere of Sharr White's drama based on the real-life relationship between a decades-serving Albany mayor and his chief advisor.
Pity the poor playwright attempting to write a political drama these days. After all, what could possibly compete with the daily goings-on in our nation's capital? Certainly not the new play by Sharr White (author of the acclaimed drama The Other Place) which squanders the talents of its formidable cast. Based on fact but awash in turgid soap opera-style melodrama, The True, being given its world premiere by off-Broadway's The New Group, should have been far more compelling than it is.
The play is based on the real-life relationship between Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), who served as the Democratic mayor of Albany for no less than 41 years, and his closest political advisor and confidante, Dorothea "Polly" Noonan (Edie Falco), with whom he may or may not have had a romantic relationship even though both were married to other people. (Fun fact: Noonan was the grandmother of current New York Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand.)
Set in 1977 Albany, the drama depicts the rift that occurred between Corning and Polly while he was struggling to win a Democratic primary election. "With deep regret, I'm going to have to end my association with you," Corning informs the deeply loyal Noonan, using the sort of formal language only a politician could muster. Deeply hurt, Noonan assumes that Corning wants to tamp down rumors of their involvement in an extramarital affair.
But Corning's casting off of his longtime cohort doesn't mean that Polly is out of the game. We subsequently see her working behind the scenes: Having a clandestine meeting with Corning's wealthy, handsome and supremely self-assured primary challenger (Glenn Fitzgerald); attempting to recruit a young Dem operative (Austin Cauldwell) to serve as a committeeman; and bitterly sparring with an intra-party rival (John Pankow). Meanwhile, her loving husband Peter (Peter Scolari), who has little taste for political warfare, unflaggingly supports her from the sidelines.
The provocative real-life political subject matter would seem rich in dramatic potential, but the playwright fumbles the ball with endless scenes featuring rambling, mundane dialogue. There's little narrative momentum, and the imagining of the actual nature of the relationship between Corning and Noonan feels banal at best. Noonan was apparently known for her salty language, so the play features Falco delivering more F-bombs than in the entire run of The Sopranos. But the constant use of obscenity for cheap comic relief gets old fast. When she offers "That and a box of chocolates will get you a hand job" in response to a compliment, you find yourself waiting for a rimshot.
Scott Elliott's flat direction doesn't help matters. And attempts at stylization in the staging such as having Falco repeatedly change her clothes in full view of the audience between scenes just come across as odd. On a purely technical level, things need to be tightened up; during the reviewed performance, pieces of confetti frequently wafted down to the stage, as well as an errant balloon (Falco made light of the gaffe with an amusing visual flourish at the evening's conclusion).
Returning to the New York stage after a break of more than five years, Falco is an acting force of nature, to be sure, and this role suits her to a T. She delivers a fierce, funny performance that gives the evening whatever energy it has, and she's ably supported by the fine ensemble, including the quietly touching Scolari and pungently amusing Pankow. Only the normally reliable McKean disappoints, giving a surprisingly low-key, underwhelming turn that provides little hint of his character's presumed political dynamism. It's but one more example of how this play about machine politics seems to have a stalled engine.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Austin Cauldwell, Edie Falco, Glenn Fitzgerald, Michael McKean, John Pankow, Peter Scolari, Tracy Shayne
Playwright: Sharr White
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Music and sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by The New Group