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Written by Sharr White; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through October 28, 2018
Michael McKean and Edie Falco in The True (photo: Monique Carboni)
The 1970s political battles in Albany, of all places, don’t sound like the most enticing subject matter for a play, but Sharr White—whose earlier The Other Place and The Snow Geese left me cold—has pulled it off with The True, an absorbing drama that smartly concentrates on the personalities behind the politics.
The True centers around Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, the right-hand woman of Albany mayor Erastus Corning 2nd for decades. (She was also Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother; kudos to White for not shoehorning that irrelevant information into his play.) Erastus was the poster boy for the city’s Democratic party machine, reigning as mayor from the 1930s until his death in 1983. His stranglehold was such that only a grassroots candidacy in 1973 came close to toppling him. White sets his play in 1977, the year of the lone primary fight Erastus ever had, and shows Polly—who began as Erastus’s secretary and soon became his closest confidante (although their relationship was, by all accounts, strictly professional)—working her behind-the-scenes magic to help Erastus win that battle and, eventually, the election.
Although it doesn’t sound like the stuff of urgent stage drama, The True keeps its singular focus on people rather than political machinations and in-fighting (interesting as they are). Polly, a brash, foul-mouthed spitfire, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, while husband Peter is her opposite, his quiet, steady demeanor the yang to her yin.
The closest The True comes to soap opera is when Erastus decides to drop Polly (and by extension Peter, even though they’ve all been close friends for years) as his adviser because his wife doesn’t like that another woman takes up so much of his time as primary season approaches. The play’s middle section sags slightly as Erastus first resists Polly and Peter’s entreaties, deferring to his wife’s wishes, then decides he does need the Noonans—particularly Polly—bad optics be damned.
But The True still rings true, thanks to White’s incisive writing and Scott Elliott’s deft direction, culminating in a potent coup de theatre not in the script. The estimable cast features Peter Scolari, whose Peter is a gracious and understated support system to Polly, and Michael McKean, whose Erastus is a full-bodied, complex man caught between personal and professional loyalty.
Centering The True, however, is Edie Falco, who embodies Polly with her usual vivid zestiness and an effortless ability to make ordinary women anything but ordinary. Falco’s riveting performance even has a slight tragic air nicely balancing the ample humor she displays throughout.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
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