New York City Theater
Pershing Square Signature Center
Edie Falco. That’s all you need to know about “The True,” Sharr White’s blistering examination of the real-life Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, a woman whose politics not only intersect with her persona, but substitute for it. As fierce and uncompromising as Falco’s character is, as brilliant her performance, the play itself, despite vivid dialogue, is squishy and sketchy.
Polly (New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother) knows she has to be twice as tough as a man. Proud, pushy, she’s an Albany Democrat back in 1977 when political machines controlled civic affairs and women did not have the upfront clout as many do now. Enjoying her dominance, she has a loyalty test for all who cross her path: Are you for or against me? There’s no middle ground for a woman described as someone who “can be too much for people.” You get either a warm embrace or a doggie bag in lieu of dinner.
Her domesticity is secondary. Yet, when we first meet her, she’s at her sewing machine. Her hands are busy but her mind is busier, plotting the re-election campaign of her close, loving friend Erastus Corning II, Albany’s long-time mayor.
She’ll do anything to get him re-elected, fighting upstart rivals, weak hangers-on and Erastus’ reluctance to take the gloves off. She has no such compunctions; in potty-mouth dialogue, she cracks the whip, all the while dispelling rumors that she and the mayor are a romantic pair. Her patient husband, Peter, feeling lonely, does nothing to thwart her ambitions.
But, whatever may or may not be happening with Erastus and Peter, is undercut by having the action embodied almost exclusively in Polly. Good company she may be yet by the end of this nearly two-hour, intermissionless character portrait, her meddling begins to repeat itself.
That the evening is leavened with genuine laughter is a plus. Indeed, the funniest bit concerns a silent walk-through, capped by an I-know-what’s-going-on glance.
Scott Elliott’s cunning direction gives the drama a coherence it lacks in the writing. Further, the acting is splendid, from Michael McKean’s reluctant, intelligent Erastus to Peter Scolari’s empathetic, straightforward Peter. Glenn Fitzgerald is elegant and crafty as Erastus’ rival, while Austin Cauldwell is amusingly awkward as a solipsistic young man. John Pankow’s tough pol seems arbitrary.
It’s Falco’s evening. As a tough, pragmatic, idealistic, wisecracking dame, she is the play’s whitehot center. Rattling off statistics with the speed of that sewing machine, she melds a hustler’s traits with more “womanly” ones like sewing culottes for granddaughter Kirsten and cooking. Defending her feistiness, she says, “I know plenty of men just like me. In fact, pretty much all men I know are just like me, and they're admired. But what am I? Suspect. Goddamned suspect.”
In contemporary terms, she’s Cynthia Nixon and Elizabeth Warren in one package. Then there’s everyone else.
--David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 21, 2018