The title of Sharr White‘s new play The True refers most ostensibly to loyalty, a virtue we don’t hear much about in the political sphere these days. For decades, Polly Noonan (Edie Falco) has been a devoted political operative, an unofficial political fixer, for her old friend Erastus Corning II (a subtle Michael McKean), longtime mayor of Albany, the capital of New York State.
Polly is also “true” to her principles. Chief among them: “caring,” as she repeatedly asserts, about the people served by the politicians of the cozy Democratic machine that runs the city.
But “true” also describes Falco’s rocket-fueled performance in this world premiere production from The New Group. She’s one of those rare actors who can imbue a larger-than-life character with utter naturalness. Fans of her stints on Nurse Jackie and The Sopranos know this, but it’s even more obvious and remarkable on stage.
The death of a longtime party boss has set in motion a successorship drama, and with it a crisis for the mayor. When he severs his ties with Polly, for reasons that become clear only later on, the frailties and anxieties of all three main characters are exposed.
Polly fears she’s losing her touch. For one thing, she has groomed for a local Committeeman position a young man (a drolly effective Austin Caldwell) who turns out not to be the person she thought he was. As she soldiers on without Erastus’s backing, she confronts the flaws in her own character as well.
Her husband Peter (an excellent Peter Scolari) has long since made peace with Polly’s nonstop activity and her devotion to a powerful, charismatic man. But he finds that that peace may be a fragile one.
Erasmus, aging, sore-hipped, unhappily married, finds his political future much less secure than his long incumbency might suggest.
White’s peppery dialogue brilliantly conveys the minutiae of 1970s political wheeling and dealing. At the same time, it delineates memorable characters who are familiar – and likable even with all their flaws. They’re drawn with such detail in this talky, funny play that we recognize the humanity in even their most unpalatable scheming. Hyperactive Polly sews and cooks between her endless missions to get to know Erastus’s constituents. Peter tangles himself in self-conscious mixology. Even the mayor’s insurgent rival (Glenn Fitzgerald) and a bitingly cynical political operator (John Pankow) become fully believable people in their single respective scenes.
Erastus, meanwhile, grimaces and slumps. But McKean can express more with a gesture or expression than other actors can with a paragraph. One does have to work a bit to imagine the charm this mayor is supposed to wield over his fiefdom – we see very little of it as he lolls and complains in Polly and Peter’s living room. But McKean’s performance captivates in a more underhanded way. The Erastus we see is the inconvenient id beneath the consummate performer.
There’s a lot of fast talk, a lot of lines shouted over other lines, and, from Polly’s mouth especially, an awful lot of cursing. In short, there’s a lot to pay attention to. The reward is an enormously entertaining show performed with tremendous skill. An hour and three quarters is over before you know it.
The staging and flow are smooth as silk, as theatergoers have come to expect from New Group productions directed by Scott Elliott. The lighting and sound design help waft the action along. The sets and costumes perfectly reflect the times and the characters’ lifestyles.
The True is a triumph for White, for Falco, and for the ensemble. It runs through 28 October at The Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42 St. Visit The New Group online for schedule and tickets.