By Donna Herman
Our current President may have gotten elected by promising to “drain the swamp,” but when it comes to corruption, DC has nothing on Albany, NY’s long-standing reputation for misdeeds. But Sharr White’s riveting new play The True, set in 1977 during the penultimate mayoral campaign of Erastus Corning II’s (Michael McKean) 40+ years in office, brushes aside the corruption whispers. Instead, the picture painted by his chief fixer and confidant, Polly Noonan (Edie Falco), is a Democratic Party with heart, that cares. And expects loyalty in the voting booth in return.
The True is based on real people and real events. “Rasty” Corning II was and is Albany’s longest serving mayor to date. He held the position from 1942 to 1983 when he died in office. Dorothea Polly Noonan started out in 1937 as his secretary at age 22 when he was elected as a State Senator. She became his closest confidante, and for over 30 years until her death, the Chairwoman of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club. And oh yes, she was U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother. In The True she is almost always at her sewing machine when she’s at home, at one point making culottes for her granddaughter Kirsten.
The True revolves around the 1977 death of Democratic Party machine boss Dan O’Connell during the run-up to elections and the subsequent power plays by various factions. But this is definitely a story told from a woman’s point of view during a time when women didn’t have a lot of political clout. Today, Polly Noonan would have been running for office herself, not trying to coach someone else through the process of getting elected. Polly was a tough, clear-eyed, pragmatic operator who saw what had to be done and didn’t suffer fools easily. She had strong principles and loyalties that she would not abandon in the face of any opposition. She was no push over, and she didn’t mince words. In fact, her language in the play is definitely R-rated.
But although she is deeply involved in the political maneuverings of the election cycle, she sees it as a means to a justifiable end. She defends herself against accusations of being part of a political “machine” by saying “You, me, Erastus. We’re people. Who care about people. A machine doesn’t care. A machine doesn’t have heart. We have heart.”
She rails at Erastus for being too aloof, being out of touch: “Used to be, a, a…a man gets crippled on the job, say? Or God forbid, dies? Whatever? Say, leaves a mother with three children? By God that funeral would get paid for. Committeeman would come by the house next day, that mother would have a job. And you know who would get the vote next fall?…Democrats!”
It’s certainly a timely moment for Mr. White to wrestle with this subject. The ideas of governmental corruption and grass roots organizing couldn’t be more relevant. And skewing the perspective just enough to see the quid pro quo possibilities for the populace does make it seem a little less sinister.
On an intimate level, the relationships between the three main characters, Erastus, Polly, and her husband Peter (Peter Scolari), are also fascinating, extremely well drawn, and powerfully portrayed by the performers. There were rumors and speculations for many years about the nature of the relationship between Polly Noonan and Erastus Corning, that were emphatically denied by them both. In Sharr White’s The True, those rumors are the source of tension and disruption. And they provide a plot point that supposedly deviates from actual events.
Edie Falco gives us another award worthy performance as Dorothea Polly Noonan. We all know that she’s a great dramatic actress -she’s been nominated for over 40 awards for her screen and theater work and won 11 of them. The last scene between her and Michael McKean is a breathtaking, heartbreaker of words not said, but meanings clear. She’s also got impeccable comic timing as evidenced in the first scene of the play. Between Mr. White’s dialog and her delivery, I could have sworn my Jewish grandmother was on stage. Nobody since Grandma has had the ability to soothe with one sentence and eviscerate with the next. It’s a gift, I tell you.
The True by Sharr White, Directed by Scott Elliott
WITH: Austin Cauldwell (Bill McCormick); Edie Falco (Dorothea “Polly” Noonan); Glenn Fitzgerald (Howard C. Nolan); Michael McKean (Erastus Corning II); John Pankow (Charlie Ryan); Peter Scolari (Peter Noonan); Tracy Shayne (Betty/Voice)
Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design & Music Composition by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; Production Supervisor, Five Ohm Productions; Production Stage Manager, Valerie A. Peterson; Casting by Judy Henderson, CSA; Public Relations by Bridget Klapinski. Presented by The New Group, Artistic Director, Scott Elliott; Executive Director, Adam Bernstein. At The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street through October 28th. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.