Don’t be fooled when the lights come up on THE TRUE.
Playwright Sharr White has three people sitting in a home library. Director Scott Elliott has situated two men in easy chairs sitting close to the front of the stage and dominating the tableau.
No one is speaking. The only sound heard comes from a sewing machine that a nondescript-looking woman is working in the background. Given that the year is 1977, you’d be well within your rights to assume that she’s a housewife.
She’s Dorothea “Polly” Noonan. For the previous 40 years, she’s been a vital part of the team that has kept Erastus Corning II as Mayor of Albany, New York for more than three decades.
Not much time must pass for us to see she’s the smartest one in the room – perhaps even in the city – and that this Polly wants more than a cracker. When criticized by either of the men, she says “Did I say something?” with injured innocence.
Did she ever say something. Will she ever. And watch out when she does.
Frankly, Polly is much more on the ball than the men. One is the exhausted and aged Erastus, who’s facing a challenge from Howard C. Nolan (a stalwart Glenn Fitzgerald). As the scared incumbent admits, “Howard’s young, wealthy and good-looking.”
And to think that Howard was once a loyal Erastus fan – until he thought of playing the “It’s time for a change” card.
The other easy-chair occupant is Polly’s husband Peter, the man behind the woman – way behind the woman. He’s never thought much of politics, and if he were to enter the arena, this nice guy would easily finish last.
When Irving Berlin wrote that show people “smile when they are low,” he meant “low” as a synonym for “discouraged.” We see that politicians (is that why she’s named Polly?) smile incessantly when they’re low – meaning underhanded. But nobody does it better than Polly with her dagger-thrusting deliveries. She learned long ago that a wide grin helps quite a bit when she delivers bad news.
Now, however, Erastus is the one doling out the bad news that he’s “ending the association with her.” As he reveals this, Polly’s still smiling, all in hopes that she’ll seduce him into walking back the dismissal with a “Nah, I’m only kidding.”
He won’t. You may assume that the old dog is looking for someone who can deliver new tricks. Derek McLane’s set mirrors Erastus’ candidacy, for he’s filled the shelves with literally thousands of books, each of them dusty and old.
Only later will you be told why Polly’s being dumped. It’s neither one that Erastus can say in front of Peter nor one that he dares broach with his wife Betty, either.
The trouble is that members of Erastus’ staff as well as plenty of Albany muckety-mucks and even many a John Q. and Jane Q. Public think that Erastus and Polly have been conducting an adulterous affair for a long, long time.
Remember: THE TRUE is set in 1977. Those were the pre-Lewinsky and pre-Stormy days when such a revelation would torpedo a politician’s chances.
Politics has oft been said to make strange bedfellows; you’ll suspect that it once made Erastus and Polly intimate ones. Give the show its entire hour-and-forty-five minutes before you decide if the two have been catting around or staying virtuous.
White wisely gives his characters ample time to act admirably. THE TRUE is not merely the expected exposé of the seamy side of politics. There are times when some of these people are on the level and on the square. Just don’t expect it to happen too often, that’s all.
Edie Falco is a wonder as Polly. She wears her eyeglasses way down to the tip of her nose, all the better to peer down at you as if you weren’t her peer.
Whatever’s on the tip of her tongue, however, gets said and often in the most profane language. Just listen when she learns that Bill McCormack, whom she recommended for a job, now has other plans. Polly is not above repeatedly calling him a name that would be more apt for Oedipus Rex.
Peter (played by another Peter: Scolari) has been enduring these explosions for years and is almost inured to it. Costume designer Clint Ramos has put Scolari in an outfit very similar to the one George wears in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? which may not have been coincidental.
If Peter is Albee’s George, then Bill is his Nick. While at the Noonans, he’ll see how acid-tongued a wife can be to a husband – and later to him. As Bill, a fine Austin Cauldwell shows realistic panic in not knowing how to handle Polly’s attacks on Peter that reach George-and-Martha proportions.
Once Polly decides that Bill’s a bum, she gives him the bum’s rush but in a most unexpected and hilarious way. (This must be the first play to involve a popsicle mold as an important prop.) Another of White’s masterstrokes comes when he shows us that all he needs is an offstage noise to inform us that despite everything, Peter is loyal to Polly. He’s so indulgent that some might call him Saint Peter – which would be apt, for upon this rock of a wife, she’ll bust his balls.
None of the politicians – not Erastus (a nuanced Michael McKean), not kingmaker Charlie Ryan (a hard-as-nine-inch-nails John Pankow) – received a diploma in diplomacy. That’s most true of Polly. Many, many times, Polly starts talking when someone else does. Each gets louder before both up the ante to screeching.
Here’s betting that you’ll always be listening to Polly and not her adversary — even if you’d rather not.