The devotion that Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco,) a foul-mouthed political operative, shows to Erastus Corning 2nd (Michael McKean,) the long-time mayor of Albany, is so intense that rumor has it that their relationship is secretly romantic, although both are married to other people.
And so, in the first scene of The True, a play by Sharr White that offers something of a primer on old-fashioned machine politics circa 1977, the mayor tells Polly formally, while sitting in her living room, “With deep regret, I’m going to have to end my association with you.”
Polly, who has been working unofficially for the mayor for four decades, is devastated. But she also ignores him, working in crafty ways to get him re-elected once again, at a vulnerable crossroads in his career: He is facing a primary challenge for the first time in 35 years.
“When Father Moreno buries you he’ll have to take precautions so you can’t claw your way out on election days,” says Polly’s husband Peter (Peter Scolari.)
Falco, late of The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, can make almost any show more engaging than it would otherwise be, even a relatively sedate one like The True, with scenes of arguments, strategy sessions and deal-making rather than gangland killings and drug overdoses. Here, leading a spot-on seven-member cast, Falco is entertaining and believable. Her Polly is down to earth – she spends most of her time at her sewing machine, making culottes for her grandkids. Yet she is also so savvy and passionate about politics that even she has to admit, and not proudly, “I’m just too much for people.” As Sharr demonstrated in his play The Other Place, which resulted in a Tony nomination for Laurie Metcalf, the playwright is skilled at creating vividly drawn women.
Except….Polly is only partly the fruit of the playwright’s imagination. The True is more or less true. There was an Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd who in 1977 was facing his first primary challenge in 35 years; he did have a long-time aide named Dorothea “Polly” Noonan who was rumored to be in a romantic relationship with him. And what’s more, Polly Noonan gave birth to a daughter, also named Polly Noonan, and that daughter gave birth to Kirsten E. Gillibrand, now a U.S. Senator from New York, who is said to be a likely candidate for president in 2020. Gillibrand has called her grandmother “my greatest political hero.”
None of this is mentioned in the play or in the program, but such knowledge should help to win over theatergoers who are not die-hard students of politics to a play that they might otherwise see as largely uneventful.
In the play, as in real life, Corning in 1942 had been the hand-picked choice of Daniel O’Connell, Albany’s Democratic political boss, who reigned from 1921 until his death. He died in 1977; the play is set just afterwards. When The True begins, Erastus has gathered in the home of Peter and Polly, which is just down the hill from his own home, to drink, mourn and worry. Polly predicts, with O’Connell no longer around to control things, there will be a power struggle, and a primary challenge. And she even guesses correctly who will run – State Senator Howard C. Nolan (and he did, in real life t00), put up to it by Charlie Ryan, a politico who is jockeying to replace the deceased O’Connell as chairman of the local Democratic Party.
In the following scenes, we witness some of Polly’s machinations. She meets with Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald), secretly, in his car – she doesn’t want to be spotted. She ambushes Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), showing up at his home announced, to strike a deal.
In the process, we learn in some detail both the pros and cons of machine politics – a label that Polly rejects. “There is no machine….A machine doesn’t care. A machine doesn’t have heart. We have heart. Even you, Howie. I have to remind myself of that when I think of what you’re doing.”
Sure, the party sticks five dollar bills in envelopes appearing in people’s mail slots on election day. (“It’s a tradition,” Polly says. “It’s corruption,” Howard replies.) But machine politics meant that a district leader (here called a Committeeman) would know everybody in his district. “A man gets crippled on the job, say? Or God forbid, dies? Whatever? Say, leaves a mother with three children? By God that funeral would get paid for. Committeeman would come by the house next day, that mother would have a job.”
That is how the Democrats won votes – more through constituent services than outright bribes or intimidation.
But, much to Polly’s chagrin, that is coming to an end – as exemplified by a funny and touching meeting she has with a young man (Austin Cauldwell) whom she is grooming to become a committeeman; she is deeply upset that he doesn’t understand what an honor this is. (The following scene, in which she sobs and Peter comforts her, is even more affecting.)
The New Group’s production of The True, directed by Scott Elliott, is well designed; Derek McLane’s set evokes a sense of middle class solidity and yet, through the lowering of a simple backdrop or the folding of a panel, presents a different place that subtly reflects a different character’s personality. The sewing machine is somehow the most compelling prop in the play. Polly sewing feels like a metaphor. Political cynics might conjure up a modern-day Madame Defarge, stitching together the names of her enemies; feminists, a next-generation Betsy Ross, one who doesn’t just create the symbol of American power, but wields some. Or maybe watching Edie Falco as Polly Noonan working a sewing machine can feel like the embodiment of a machine with heart.
The True is on stage at the Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, east of Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036) through October 28, 2018. Tickets and details
The True. Written by Sharr White. Directed by Scott Elliott, Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter and Sound Design & Music Composition by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen, featuring Austin Cauldwell, Edie Falco, Glenn Fitzgerald,Michael McKean, John Pankow, Peter Scolari, Tracy Shayne. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.