NEW YORK - In its purest form, the political machine can serve individuals, but ultimately it neuters the democratic process. At least that’s what playwright Sharr White says in his new play “The True.”
“The True,” which opened recently at the Pershing Square Center on 42ndStreet in New York City, is a fascinating play centering about Albany politics, circa 1977. It’s a rich, insightful work that uses a complicated, personal relationship to illustrate how machine politics operate.
With “The True,” White is able to take the potentially dry topic of the day-to-day operations of a political machine to create a compelling story. He explores and expands individuals who devote their lives trying to make machine politics work.
He does this by using the relationship of Erastus Corning II, who served as Albany mayor from 1942-1983, and his loyal confidant Dorothea “Polly” Noonan. For many years, Noonan was recognized as the power behind the throne in Albany’s City Hall. If you wanted Corning’s ear, the only sure path was through Noonan. She was his muse, his devoted companion and his enforcer.
What was not so clear was their personal relationship. In “The True,” the rumors that were raised in their lifetime about them being lovers are addressed, denied, but not put to rest. What is made clear is that Polly Noonan had a personal relationship with Corning that transcended the physical.
At the end of the one hour, forty-five-minute play, performed without an intermission, we understand and accept them simply as two people who loved each other, depended on each other and served each other. They had been soul mates for 40 years; no judgment necessary.
Having Polly’s husband, Peter, serve as a major character in the play helps to take the stigma out of the unorthodox relationship. He is the person most affected by the rumors, and yet he is as loyal to his wife as she is to Corning. It’s clear that sometimes her devotion to another man hurts him, but their own relationship exists on another level of love, one that works for both of them. Further complicating an already complicated situation is that Peter truly likes and admires Corning, and Corning returns that friendship to Peter.
The acting is inspired. Edie Falco is brilliant as Polly. Falco takes what could be a caricature of an irritating woman and breathes fire into her soul. Though terribly flawed, the obsessive and driven woman with a potty mouth becomes a force of nature and the audience is able to understand why both her husband and Corning found her irresistible.
Peter Scolari is marvelous as he catches the complexities of a man caught between two unique individuals. Seemingly a passive man, Scolari’s Peter is a man who is always aware of the situation and his role in it. He might be passive, but he’s no pushover.
As for Corning, Michael McKean plays him as insecure, which tends to make him look indecisive and almost weak. Though the portrayal is in conflict with Corning’s history as a tough politician, McKean’s interpretation is ideal for this play, which centers on a fictional break between him and Polly.
The supporting cast is excellent, as is the technical support. Costumes shout late-1970s and the set is simple yet wondrously alters to provide several clearly defined locations. Scott Elliot’s direction and pacing of the play is near-perfect.
Though “The True” takes place in Albany where politics is a blood sport, the conflicts and tests of loyalty are universal. The situation, if not the characters should be recognizable in every community of every size in any part of the country where power is delegated by the voting public.
This is essentially a play about how political power is developed, how it is maintained, how it can be abused, taken for granted and lost.
In 1977, the Democrats had controlled Albany by catering to the Irish-Catholics who dominated the city. However, the demographics were changing because of an increasing African-American population. Without recognizing the shift, the machine put itself at risk to the “reformers” who understood that change was inevitable.
Without hitting you over the head, the play points out that females were neglected in the decision making political process. Though Polly Noonan was one of the smartest political minds in Albany, her voice was never directly heard. Indeed, many entrenched politicians resented her influence.
“The True” is a play about how things were 40 years ago. As we experience the political battle that took place in Albany, it is impossible not to think of the changes that have taken place since then.
One way to measure those changes is to note that Polly Noonan’s granddaughter, Kirsten Gillibrand, is currently a United State Senator from New York State and is often spoken of as a possible candidate for higher political office.
Things do change.
“The True,” runs through October 28 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 42ndStreet, New York.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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