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The True

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 20, 2018

Edie Falco, Michael McKean, and Peter Scolari
Photo by Monique Carboni

Playwright Sharr White's The True, opening tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a production by The New Group, is an old-fashioned political potboiler that manages to rise above its rustbucket origins thanks to a truly outstanding cast, headed up by a pitch-perfect performance by Edie Falco as the shrewd and audacious, if unheralded, woman behind the throne in the male-dominated world of 1970s Albany government.

The play, in which the political and the personal are inextricably linked, is based on the actual movers and shakers within the Democratic party's well-oiled machine who ran that city for decades. It's all there in bold relief: the patronage, the party loyalty, the cronyism, the tit-for-tat trading of favors, the backstabbing, and the gossip that are part and parcel of both the civic landscape and the theatrical genre. If you are familiar with such fare as Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay's Pulitzer-winning play State of the Union or Gore Vidal's The Best Man, you'll recognize the territory.

Falco plays the real-life Polly Noonan, a former secretary who has been for a long time an adviser, confidant, and close personal friend to Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), mayor of Albany since 1942 and hoping for a last hurrah in the upcoming election. But it is now 1977, and times are changing. Long-held loyalties are shifting, and maybe it's the end of the line for Corning, Noonan, and their aging political cronies who climbed the ropes by playing and mastering the game for so many years. When the party's head honcho dies, everything is suddenly up for grabs, and Corning is facing his first serious primary challenge in a very long time.

The political side of the play is very much about how Noonan strives to keep everyone in line, at least through the upcoming election cycle. She is especially wary of two hungry sharks who are swimming around and sniffing for blood: Howard Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald), who intends to challenge Corning for the party's nomination, and Charlie Ryan (John Pankow, excellent, if underutilized), an old nemesis who wants to be party chair and kingmaker.

The real Polly Noonan, who, as it happens, was the grandmother of the current U. S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had a reputation for being a shrewd politico with a profanity-laden vocabulary. Falco plays her like a house afire, fearless, demanding, and with a penchant for dropping F-bombs into every conversation. She is, after all, a woman who has never held a political office striving to make her voice be heard in a man's world. And she is determined to be heard, even as she understands that her fate is tied to that of Corning. Despite the gossip that swirls around them, It does not seem they are romantically involved with one another. But they are as joined as any couple, which puts a lot of strain on their respective marriages. (Peter Scolari is quite good as Noonan's put-upon husband, while Tracy Shayne is seen briefly but effectively as Corning's wife.)

Truth be told, the play itself, both as it is written and as it is directed by Scott Elliott, suffers from a degree of choppiness. Some characters show up long enough to make a point, and then disappear until the next time they are needed, if at all. These individual scenes play well, but they also break the flow, and the political vs personal stuff that ought to provide the dramatic tension is underserved. Yet the acting, especially Edie Falco's mesmerizing performance, is so thoroughly compelling as to render the structural flaws pretty much moot.

The True
Through October 21
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral