The True, a sturdy but static drama by Sharr White and starring Edie Falco, seizes inspiration from real-life figures in and around a 1977 election in upstate New York. In this New Group presentation, which opened Thursday at Signature Center, it’s politics as usual – decidedly dirty and definitely personal.
That goes double for Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Falco), a diehard Democrat and political operative and longtime confidant of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning II (a deft Michael McKean, in a rather underwritten role). Married with children, the feisty, foul-mouthed Polly didn’t hold office, but she loomed large in the local political machine. Corning and she, along with her husband Peter (Peter Scolari), were BFFs. The extent of the intimacy between the mayor, who was also married, and Polly fueled the rumor mill for years.
But at a point, whispers and perceptions matter. In the playwright’s mind, that precise moment arrives when Corning, 35 years into his tenure as mayor, found himself in a primary fight. So he drops Polly – with a thud. She’s angry, confused, devastated, but not undone. In her fashion, which includes manipulation and an all-is-fair-in-love-and-governing attitude, she stays faithful to Corning and her party in the run-up to the election.
With its talk of nasty political battles, election interference and infidelity, the play is certainly topical. It also engages with its ideas about power and how it’s achieved and maintained. The production, directed by Scott Elliott, is evocative. Costumes summon late-70s looks. Scenery shifts smoothly from humble homes to fancy mayoral residence. But scenes also tend to trace the same territory. Amid the repetition, the stakes feel low. The play simmers but doesn’t emit intense heat.
One can sense what attracted White to the topic. He has been drawn to stories of strong women facing challenges, including fictional heroines in The Other Place and The Snow Geese. In this instance, Polly is an actual person, the maternal grandmother of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, to boot.
Polly Noonan makes a worthy subject. She goes from homemaker who whips up stews and culottes on her sewing machine to dealmaker who takes on men standing in her way. That includes Corning’s opponent Sen. Howard Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald), power player Charlie Ryan (John Pankow) and even a young man (Austin Cauldwell) who, Polly believes, lacks political zeal. Conversations and interactions are the product of the author’s imagination.
Through it all, Falco, a seasoned stage actress who’s famous for TV roles on The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, paints a vibrant portrait. Her Polly is fiery, charming, funny, profane and vulnerable. The True never quite catches fire dramtically, but Falco casts a bright glow.