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“The True” at Capital Rep looks at Albany’s political past

Pictured LR: Antoinette LaVecchia, Michael Pemberton, Wynn Harmon
Doug Liebig
Capital Rep
Pictured LR: Antoinette LaVecchia, Michael Pemberton, Wynn Harmon

“The True”, playing at Capital Repertory is, at its essence, a story about politics in a mid-sized American city. The city has been dominated by a political machine for decades, but now from within the party there is the start of a mini-rebellion.

The play, written by Sharr White, is a success on many levels. It has an interesting story; it’s performed by an excellent cast and has smart direction.

However, what elevates the play at Capital Rep is that the city in which change is on the table is Albany, and the people who drive the story are local political legends.

Hints of that change are signaled immediately. Dan O’Connell, the Boss Tweed of Albany, has just died and the power he wielded is up for grabs. Too, the current mayor, Erastus Corning 2nd is being primaried by an ambitious political newcomer, “Howie” Nolan.

Clearly, “The True” is not just a simple story about politics; it is a story about OUR politics.

The central figures are “mayor for life” Corning, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan and her husband Peter Noonan. Other real people in the play are a very young Howard Nolan, as well as Charlie Ryan, a Corning rival and important figure in Albany politics.

However, despite its title, no one is claiming this is a true account of the 1977 primary. The characters are real. The situation is also real. Howard Nolan, who went on to have a 20-year distinguished career as a State Senator, did scare Corning in a 1977 primary.

And, most important, Corning, who in total served as Albany’s mayor for almost 42-years, had a close and complex relationship with Polly. She was his most important and influential adviser. They were so close many felt they were engaged in a sexual relationship as well.

In “The True,” the rumors lead to a rift between the two during the primary and playwright White uses this to show us how hardball grass roots politics were played in Albany. To the playwright’s credit, he downplays the relationship between Corning and Polly. Instead, he shows their friendship as based on respect, affection and need.

Actually, the playwright is a bit too cautious in making the relationship platonic. The play, overall, lacks mystery and it would probably be better to keep audiences guessing about the pair. Indeed, there are more than a few times the play bogs down over the Noonan’s domestic relationship.

The stronger moments are when we see Polly flexing her political muscle. Three small scenes show more of her personality than does most of her angst over her friendship with Corning.

Best among the three is a showdown with Corning’s bitter rival Charlie Ryan. It is a riveting moment when local favorite Kevin McGuire matches Polly crudity for crudity. Not only is the tension real, it makes the politics of the city disturbingly honest.

Her scene with Nolan, with David Kenner giving just enough swarm, is also revealing.

However, the meeting she had with Polly’s hand-picked candidate for committeeman defines Polly’s passion for politics and dedication to the party more vividly than any other moment in the show. Jack Mastrianni shows the young Bill McCormack as a naïve dilatant, which is an anathema to Polly for whom politics was a lifetime commitment.

But the leads make the show. The dominating character is Polly and Antoinette La Vecchia finds the smartness of her character without losing the sense that she is doing the work of angels by getting Corning reelected.

She not only believes in Corning, but she is convinced that an autocratic but benevolent political party best serves the little guys. Especially if the little guys were white, Irish Democrats.

La Vecchia plays Noonan as old-school. She is as loyal as she is smart and as tough as is her vocabulary. She gives a memorable portrayal that not only makes us understand the indomitable force that was Noonan, she also represents all the women of the era who were denied their rightful place at the political table.

Michael Pemberton plays Corning weaker than most locals would remember him. However, what makes his portrayal so effective is that we still understand Corning’s strength and realize this moment in time was a temporary lapse, not a definitive portrait. Just as important is the portrayal serves the need of the playwright to have a weak man being superior to Noonan.

One of the most important characters in the play is Polly’s quiet, unassuming husband, Peter. Wynn Harmon makes it clear the man is devoted to his wife and genuinely likes Corning and considers him a friend. It’s a leveling performance that shows another side of Polly.

As good as Harmon is in bringing shading to a one-dimensional character, I think Peter is given too much stage time as he does little to drive the political drama.. and, it is politics that should drive the play.

Costumes set the era, but the set design by Roman Tatorowicz is too sparse, open and cold. It deprives the work of the intimacy that would help make bigger than life characters real. It also shows a flaw in the new theater by making the characters seem distant from the audience.

“The True” is a play about and for Albany. Its flaws will likely go mostly unnoticed in Albany, and for that director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill should be credited. The play is a seamless, affectionate look at Albany’s past, and some might say, its present.

“The True’ continues at Capital Rep, 251 N. Pearl Street, Albany through April 24. For tickets and schedule information call 518-34-6204 or go to capitalrep.com

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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