Michael McKean and Eddie Falco in ‘The True.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni/The New Group)
For many theatergoers, playwright Sharr White’s exploration of 1970s Albany politics and the multi-faceted, intimate relationship of its then mayor Erastus Corning II and his confidant and advisor Dorothea “Polly” Noonan might seem like obscure subject matter. Think again.
Mr. White’s bristling play The True, directed with razor-sharp precision by The New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott and featuring knockout performances, delivers a firmly grounded sense of place and time and simultaneously illuminates broader themes of intimacy and power.
The real-life Corning (thoughtfully portrayed by Michael McKean) served as Albany’s Democratic mayor for 41 years. His relationship with Noonan (an electric Eddie Falco) and her husband Peter (Peter Scolari) was one with deep, complicated roots. According to The New York Times, upon his death, Corning left the couple and their children a valuable insurance business, while his own family received virtually nothing — a powerful example of the threesome’s intimate entanglement. But the nitty-gritty that unfolds on Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre stage is primarily of Mr. White’s imagination. And, oh, what an imagination it is.
The contentious 1977 primary between Corning and Senator Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) provides The True’s dramatic framework as Polly navigates the political underpinnings to ensure Corning remains Mayor. This includes manipulative conversations and confrontations such as an attempt to bolster Corning’s support by inserting a green committeeman (Austin Cauldwell) and a climatic head-to-head with Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), who has his own agenda to get Nolan on the ticket. Polly’s take-no-prisoners approach drives a wedge between her and Corning’s relationship, but she’s not the kind of woman that takes no for an answer.
It’s easy to see what attracted Ms. Falco, known for her Emmy Award-winning performances in “Nurse Jackie” and “The Sopranos,” to the role, described by the playwright as “charming, vociferous, cajoling, foul-mouthed, and pugnacious.” The actress delivers all of that and more in a biting, acerbic and astonishingly vulnerable performance. Her onstage costume changes (designed by Clint Ramos) feature fluid, 1970s synthetic fabrics, set against scenic designer Derek McLane’s set that seamlessly transitions from the Noonan’s home to various Albany locales with the help of Jeff Croiter’s intoxicatingly moody lighting and bongo-driven musical composition by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts it’s made of, not unlike Polly’s views of the Democratic Party.
In an early conversation, Nolan says to Polly, “You don’t buy loyalty, you inspire it,” to which she replies, “What a sack of shit.” But it’s a line she steals and reiterates to her advantage in a later confrontation with Ryan, adding “Democrats, we care. That’s what we do.” Polly plays the cards in her hand, but she’s a master at keeping track of the deck.
The True also offers an unspoken commentary on the era’s socio-economic and feminist blueprint. Polly often remains out of the public eye, delivering her strategies and opinions from a seat at her sewing machine or while serving up a pot of Irish stew. The character’s onstage costume changes, too, elicit an endless cycle of role-playing that both infuriates and drives her ambition, saying to Corning at one point, “You care the same way I care but I’ve got a pair of tits so you don’t know what to fucking do with me.”
He doesn’t know what to do with her. Perhaps they don’t know what to do with each other. Polly repeatedly denies having an affair with Corning, and while the pair’s relationship may not have been physically consummated, their deep affection for one another certainly resonates as emotional infidelity.
“Regular people. They don’t give a shit what you do behind closed doors so long as their lives are working,” says Polly to Corning. “But their lives aren’t working anymore.” The same could be said today. As much as things change — in D.C., Albany, or wherever you may live — they often stay the same.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through October 28