The True is a play that takes you for a ride. In its world premiere production by The New Group currently running at the Pershing Square Theater, you careen around curves with it, scream down hills with it, down-shifting and tearing off in all directions without ever leaving the suburban Albany living room, for the most part, of The True’s protagonist — Dorothea “Polly” Noonan. The car chase pace is an illusion projected entirely by the fervent, frantic power of playwright Sharr White’s dialogue; a pungency of language unrelentingly laced with obscenity.
That the subject here is politics and almost solely of the small town variety may not seem speed-worthy but just sit back and let it ride. I did. All that fabulous hot air revving from a fired-up company of actors, led by Edie Falco giving yet another career-defining performance as Polly – well, I just reveled in it.
The fact that Polly was a real person and The True is more or less a true story lends the theatrical fireworks an enhancing patina of reality. Admittedly, reality is not much of an enhancer these days in our politics present-tense. Past political reality, however, can be infinitely easier to escape into.
The real Polly Noonan was the power-behind-the-throne of Albany’s Democratic machine for decades. (She is, in fact, the grandmother of New York’s current Senator Kirsten Gillibrand). The True catches up to Polly in 1977. The city’s longtime mayor, Erastus Corning II, is being seriously challenged by a younger Democrat in the pending primary. Mayor Corning has been the sole focus of Polly Noonan’s ministering life in politics for years, to the point that whispers have long pinned them as lovers.
Sharr White sticks Mayor Corning, Ms. Polly and her long-suffering husband, Peter, in the Noonan living room, jawing at each other profanely about the ominous approaching primary, the past, the future and their infernally interconnected, age-old “friendship.” The conversation is gloriously mundane and shot through with knives. Secrets, shared and unshared, steal into view and are again obscured. Power shifts before our eyes. Ms. Falco, through it all, is perfectly riveting, delivering an object lesson in theatrical steel (and steal), conjuring her character in the words she sprays like machine gun bullets, while grounding her, as well, in the words surpressed that Polly will always leave unsaid because she is a woman without office or title in an all male world of power.
The True escapes its circumscribed living room for two searing scenes in which Polly leaves her own comfort zone to confront her male opposite numbers in their respective living rooms (plus one hilarious encounter inside of a moving car — appropriately — for an “I was never here” confab between Polly-the fixer and the young candidate running against her Mayor).
Under the sleek, savvy direction of New Group Artistic Director Scott Elliott, the cast is consumately effortless in its intricate interactions with Ms. Falco’s Polly. Peter Scolari, as husband Peter, is world-weary but no pushover. Michael McKean, as Mayor Corning, is war-weary, but also no pushover. Austin Cauldwell is a push-over, and marvelously so, as a very young Democratic committeeman applicant in way over his head on a job interview masked as a dinner visit inside Polly’s living room lair. Glenn Fitzgerald, as the onrushing young mayoral candidate, manages to end up a pushed over no-pushover by the time Polly is done with him. Tracy Shayne nearly stops the show in a wordless cameo that must be savored live. And John Pankow does steal the show for just a scene, portraying the city’s muscle-flexing, putative future political boss in a furious face-off with Falco.
At the end, Sharr White’s Polly left me oddly nostalgic for an age of political corruption that at least was rooted in an informed sense of civic responsibility. As Polly proudly makes clear, in perhaps the play’s finest speech, her Democratic machine has always known exactly who it is representing and why. Can either of our political parties today remotely make the same claim? And mean it.