“A Piece of Work”
Midway through The True, Sharr White’s sizzling drama of Albany backroom politics, State Senator Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) tells political operative Dorothea “Polly” Noonan she’s “a piece of work.” And indeed, she is, especially as played by the tempestuous Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie) in the best performance of the budding season.
|Michael McKean, Edie Falco, Peter Scolari. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
In their scene, Noonan is using all her fine-tuned, rough-edged tools to persuade Nolan, a Democrat, not to run against Albany mayor Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), the Democratic who’s held the office since 1942, in the upcoming 1977 mayoral election.
|Edie Falco, Glenn Fitzgerald. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Noonan is a fierce, funny, fearsome, f bomb-dropping woman who has worked for Corning since 1937, and describes herself as his “confidant.” She believes with every corpuscle in her veins in the importance of remaining true to your cause, in this case the system that has long dominated the Albany power structure. And it’s her steamrolling mission to make sure every last Democratic vote goes to “Rasty” Corning.
|Michael McKean, Edie Falco. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
But things are not quite that simple. Dan O’Connell, powerful, long-serving chairman of the Albany Democratic Party, has died at 91, robbing Corning of his backing, but giving him the chance to take over his job himself in addition to continuing as mayor. However, another faithful O’Connell power broker, Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), also wants to succeed to O’Connell’s position.
|Austin Cauldwell, Edie Falco. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Stirring the pot on Corning’s behalf is Polly, married to the stable, supportive, non-political Peter (Peter Scolari), but rumored to be the married Corning’s mistress. The “perception” of their relationship appears to be why he decides to cut off his connections with her, despite how important her support and advice is.
|Edie Falco, Peter Scolari. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Sharr’s swiftly spoken, exquisitely gritty, colloquial dialogue captures all the raw force of gloves-off political and marital squabbling. The intricacies of Albany’s political culture—with its Democratic machine, committeemen, ward leaders, patronage, corruption, and so on—are limned with surgical precision, and the stakes for each participant couldn’t be more vividly expressed.
|John Pankow, Edie Falco. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Large doses of humor leaven the atmosphere, as in a wonderful scene during which a callow, 28-year old named Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell) is invited over for a dinner of Irish stew so the enthusiastically optimistic Polly can prep him for the important job of committeeman. As she learns how little he’s aware of his Irish heritage (the Irish were a major Albany demographic) and how disinterested he is in a lifetime political career, Polly’s frustration detonates her emotional TNT with explosive results: “Where’s the dedication? Where’s the fucking dedication?” she erupts.
|Edie Falco, Michael McKean. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Giving the play an even stronger texture of authenticity is that it’s based on actual people, the central figure, Polly Noonan, being the grandmother of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. There are even passing references to the then 11-year-old Kirsten.
Aside from a scene on a car seat and one in Ryan’s shabby home (indicated by a drop), the action transpires in a booklined living room, cleverly designed by Derek McLane, and lovingly lit by Jeff Croiter. With changes behind the upstage archway, it serves handsomely as the home of both the Noonans and the Cornings.
|Edie Falco, Michael McKean, Peter Scolari. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Off-Broadway’s New Group consistently presents star-studded casts, but I’ve had reservations about several of their recent offerings. This one, though, as beautifully directed by Scott Elliott, flawlessly matches the ensemble to its material, creating a production of exceptional honesty in which each actor shines.
Scolari’s reserved, soft-spoken Peter (not unlike the temperament of his role as Lena Dunham’s dad on Girls) is the perfect balance for the volcanic Polly, while McKean is thoroughly truthful as the aging politician who fears for his career. Cauldwell is winsomely innocent as the naive interviewee, Glenn Fitzgerald is believably browbeaten, and John Pankow knows how to strike with venom when threatened. Even Tracy Shane, in a brief, wordless appearance as Corning’s wife, Betty, makes an impression merely by crossing the stage.
But this is Edie Falco’s show. Looking just this side of dowdy in costumes (thanks to Clint Ramos’s pinpoint perfect designs) that are perhaps meant to suggest homemade garments (she spends a lot of time at a sewing machine), this brilliant actress is a thespian firestorm. She mingles tears, raucous laughter, sarcasm, vulgarity, ferocity, and vulnerability in equal measure. It’s easy to see how such a woman could cow the men around her while simultaneously gaining their respect (or “regard,” as she would say). The times may not have been conducive to women holding high office in Albany politics but Polly Noonan was nonetheless a force to reckon with.
Now and then, longueurs appear in this intermissionless, hour and 45-minuted drama, whose limited action is spread across several months. It nevertheless deserves “regard” for making the story of an election about which few in the audience know anything at all a gripping theatrical experience. And that is true.
Pershing Square Signature Company/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 28