The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 28, $30-$125
Obie-winning playwright Sharr White and director Scott Elliott manage to make a story about the 1977 mayoral election in Albany, New York, tense and exciting in The True, a world premiere from the New Group that opened tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center. A fictionalized version of real events, the vastly entertaining play opens as Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), who has been mayor of the capital of New York State since 1941, is facing a serious challenge to his long reign following the death of Democratic party leader Dan O’Connell. State senator Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is taking on Corning, with the support of Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), who wants to be the new party boss. But tough-talking fixer Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco) isn’t about to let that happen. Noonan, a foul-mouthed firebrand, pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes, and her down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred style gets things done as her calm, easygoing husband, Peter (Peter Scolari), stays out of it all. “I don't hate politics, by the way. I just want nothing to do with it,” he says, even when confronted with rumors that Erastus, who is married to the mysterious Betty (Tracy Shayne), and Polly are longtime lovers. Desperate for Erastus to beat Nolan, who is leading big in the polls, Polly taps young Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell) to be named committeeman and support Erastus within the party machine. “Fuck that fucking Charlie Ryan,” she says. But when Erastus starts questioning whether he still wants Polly on his team, she practically explodes, while also hurting inside, since she has devoted her life to him and the Democrats.
Falco (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Side Man) is exceptional as Noonan, a kind of cross between Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos and Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie, two roles that earned her Emmys. (In fact, much of the cast and creative team have major television ties: Scolari starred on Bosom Buddies, The Bob Newhart Show, and Girls, McKean was on Laverne & Shirley and SNL and is currently on Better Call Saul, Pankow is a veteran of Mad About You and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and White is a writer and producer for The Affair and Sweetbitter.) Falco plays Noonan with a brawling charm, whether she’s sitting at her sewing machine making a culotte or going face-to-face with her political enemies. Obie winner White (The Other Place, Annapurna) gets right to the heart of the matter, showing how politics has changed over the decades, implying why the Democrats have been losing power in recent years. “Regular people,” Noonan tells Erastus. “They don’t give a shit what you do behind closed doors so long as their lives are working. But their lives aren’t working anymore. Committeeman. Used to know every. Single. Voter. In his district. Every single one. That voter had a problem, they told the committeeman, the committeeman went to the ward leader, the ward leader either solved it? Or went to Dan. And you know what happened at the end of the day? . . . It got taken care of.” Brief but telling references to shifting demographics, race, and women in politics reveal much as Noonan also makes clear that women are not treated the same as men in the political arena. “What I do for Erastus is no different than what you did for Dan. And yet I’m ostracized for it,” she tells Ryan.
McKean (The Little Foxes, Accomplice) and Scolari (The Foreigner, Hairspray) are both terrific, portraying best friends who try to keep politics — and Polly — from tearing them apart. New Group artistic director Elliott (Evening at the Talk House, Mercury Fur) expertly balances the humor amid powerful dramatic moments, never letting things go awry on Derek McLane’s elegant set, where small changes make dramatic differences. And watch out for a surprise, hilarious late scene that brings the house down — something that does not appear in the script. Kudos are also due Falco’s hair stylist and costume designer Clint Ramos, who capture 1977 in fabulous ways. Noonan represents a different time in the treatment of women, both personally and professionally; she might cook and sew, but she also curses and never backs down from a challenge, particularly from a man. It’s fascinating to imagine what Noonan, who died in November 2003 at the age of eighty-eight, would think of what’s going on in the political arena today, in Albany and the country itself; she would certainly be proud of her granddaughter, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who calls her “my greatest political hero” and is keeping her grandmother’s legacy alive.