During my undergraduate and graduate college days and afterward (1970s), I lived in Albany, New York, the setting of The True. Familiarizing myself with the city during those years, I learned about Albany’s political and social structure. Friends who were aides to state congressmen used to discuss the corruption problems in Albany’s Democratic machine. Other friends, some of them Black Panthers, discussed the white communities’ racial discrimination and local government injustices. In those years, the Irish controlled Albany city and county. And Dan O’Connell as Party Chairman helped Mayor Erastus Corning II govern the city for decades.
On one level I knew about the background of Sharr White’s subject matter and characters in The True. There were no surprises. He based the characters on research about real personalities. On the other hand, the playwright’s perspective on the characters held many surprises. Indeed, his exploration of how power and the ties that solidify power bathe in loyalty appear fascinating in the backdrop of today’s leaking political climate. As a result, The True, ably directed by Scott Elliott and impeccably acted by Edie Falco, Michael McKean, and the ensemble, ignites with humor and intrigue.
White mostly depicts Albany’s machine politics with a positive twist. Ostensibly, hooked-in communities backed the Democrats for good old-fashioned patronage. Their loyalty was rewarded with various types of assistance and employment. The Democratic Party took care of widows and orphans. They got jobs for those who needed help. In exchange the voters listened to their committeemen. And they formed a solid community. Furthermore, they remained loyal to the party until death. As for those who wanted a political career, they worked their way up the ladder, moved from position to position until they achieved glory. Of course they had to live in Albany for all of their lives. Erastus Corning II was such an individual.
But Republicans struggled. They received higher tax bills and other infelicities. Meanwhile, the outsider black community feared Corning’s police. Though injustices raged, they kept their heads down except for a few attempts at protest (by The Brothers). From my outsiders’ perspective a negative mythology about O’Connell’s machine and Mayor Corning II swirled around the capital of New York State. White’s The True rounded out my perspective and brought additional considerations into view.
Interestingly, no clouds of malfeasance penetrate Sharr White’s world of Albany politics, though characters discuss or deny rumors. Instead, White provides a human portrait of individuals. He particularly focuses on the relationship between Corning II (Michael McKean) and secretary and close friend Peggy Noonan (Edie Falco). Though Albany social circles intimated they had a love relationship, White’s play concentrates on their bonds surrounding politics. The ferocious loyalty Noonan has to Corning II as the do-gooding Mayor of Albany is the centerpiece of the play. Yet, questions about their relationship serve as the conflict. When a wedge develops between Corning II and Noonan, their reactions drive the action and stir the characterizations.
Ingeniously, White gives us the insider’s perspective “in the rooms where loyalties happened.” The play opens after Dan O’Connell’s funeral (1977), at friends Peter and Peggy Noonan’s home where Erastus Corning II frequently hangs for comfort and advice. With humorous interplay, Edie Falco portrays Peggy Noonan’s vibrance, determination, and foul-mouthed, steely brilliance. Her political acumen appears greater than that of her male counterparts. Supported by her affable, agreeable, clever, non-political husband Peter (Peter Scolari), they discuss Corning II’s options.
Because Corning II is not O’Connell’s pronounced heir apparent, he appears to be in over his head after the party boss’s death. And we divine that the entire organization (machine) and reins of power are up for grabs. Indeed, Peggy stirs the pot by reminding “Rasty” that the tough O’Connell operative Charlie Ryan (John Pankow) will kick Corning II, whom he dislikes, to the curb. When McKean’s Corning II appears to wobble, Falco clobbers him with the truth of the loss of power that will occur and why and how it will occur. The changing of the guard (few politicians will care about their constituents) will sink Corning II. The lack of loyalty will give others a wedge to undermine the Democratic party’s strength at nurturing its communities.
Falco’s Noonan cajoles with logic, wit, and sarcasm. She delivers quips with sass and spunk and verve. As we note her determination in stirring McKean’s “Rasty” we note their closeness. For his part McKean’s portrait of Corning II remains measured, thoughtful, avuncular. No stench of corruption, avaricious ambition, or ruthlessness follows this likable mayor. Indeed, the portrayal reveals an emotional, deep individual. We note he stays because he yearns for the companionship of his trusted friends. Rather than go home to his wife Betty as Polly suggests, he receives sustenance from them, especially Polly. For his part, Peter listens and participates, generously pouring drinks and good will.
Yet, we question. Why would another man’s wife curate so vehemently the political career of a friend? Why not his own wife? Noonan as Corning’s former secretary means so much more to him than his wife Betty does. Indeed, she appears to be the finest political advisor a politician could have. On closer inspection we understand that this politician is married to his party and career. By design, Polly comes with the package. Thoughtfully, White lightly suggests that their bond did or may sneak beyond the elusive depths of his political career toward intimacy.
Sharr White develops this intriguing notion throughout. Notably, he presents a complex answer by degrees underneath various personality layers and sharp Noonan retorts to Rasty’s rivals. One obvious theme concerns Noonan’s gender. Undoubtedly, at a different time and place, Peggy Noonan would have stepped from behind the scenes to make a grand committeewoman or state congresswoman herself. However, because of gender limitations, she must settle for being Rasty’s brilliant adviser, counselor, and cattle prod, which she adores being. Also, she must wear the filthy smear of the “other woman,” in infamy. For decades it remains a slander from which she receives no benefit.
White shows us the turning point when McKean’s Corning II must give up his association with Peggy “to stop people from talking.” However, that does not stop Noonan’s persistence. She remains “the true.” Loyal to Corning II, she fights for him against his adversaries. And she properly divines the polls where others fail, even Rasty. Finally with only days to spare, we follow her intrigues as she puts together a deal which saves Rasty’s career and convinces a remorseful McKean’s Rasty he should never have left her association.
What a woman! A political wheeler-dealer bar none! In fact White reveals that Erastus Corning II might have languished in the graveyard of failed politicians without her help and Peter’s friendship. By comparison, Corning II’s own family situation appears worse than bleak, isolated and friendless. No forthcoming career help there.
The True succeeds on many levels: the fascinating characters, the acting, the directing. Though the individuals are factual, White teases out the emotional tenor between and among the Noonans and Corning II. Importantly, the playwright depicts an incredible force in Noonan. And Falco portrays her with that particularity inherent in one who is wise, ferocious, logical, politically savvy, and street smart. Also, she happens to be a woman who cares about people, as she suggests that O’Connell and Corning II and the Democratic Party cared about the “have nots.” For me this refreshing inside revelation about a vital and unlikely conductor politically leading a symphony of men strikes with authenticity.
The production is a must-see for Falco’s dogged portrayal, with adroit assists by McKean, Scolari and the rest of the cast. Austin Caldwell portrays Bill McCormick, Glenn Fitzgerald depicts Howard C. Nolan, and John Pankow portrays Charlie Ryan. Kudos go to the creative team: Derek McLane (scenic design), Clint Ramos (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design & music composition). The True runs at The Pershing Square Signature Center until 28 October. If you don’t purchase tickets soon, it will be sold out. For tickets Click HERE.