If these characters sound familiar, they are based on real people who populated Albany politics four decades ago. The True, a world premiere play by Sharr White (The Other Place, The Snow Goose) gives four-time Emmy and two-time Golden Globe Award winner Edie Falco another bigger-than-life role and she is magnificent. The cast also includes television stars Michael McKean (Mayor Corning) and Peter Scolari (Peter Noonan) as well as Glenn Fitzgerald (Howard C. Nolan) and John Pankow (Charlie Ryan) who under the direction of The New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott create a true ensemble, making us feel that these people have lived their roles.
The problem with the elegant production now at The Pershing Square Signature Center is its total lack of tension both in the writing as well as in the direction. Lives and careers are at stake, personal feelings are wounded, elections are on the line but you would never know it from the leisurely pace of the play. White’s structure doesn’t help: set mainly in a series of Albany living rooms, the play is made up of two-character conversations that go round and round the same topics long after we have gotten the point. Peggy tries to find out why Erastus dumped her while she also works ceaselessly to get him enough support to win the next mayoral election as well as to be elected to the vacant job as party chief. However, it is played out like a very slow chess game with each scene one move and nothing more.
Derek McLane’s clever set uses the same front elements in each scene but adds background niches that change the locales. While this makes for quick transitions, it also feels like the same set and that we have not moved anywhere else. Falco who needs a new outfit for each of the play’s nine scenes changes right on stage before us in Clint Ramos’ suitable costume plot but also tends to make us feel that we have remained in the same place as before, in Peggy’s house as in the first scene.
While the acting cannot be faulted, the play does not allow the characters to grow or change in the course of eight months, and they all seem to be right where they were at the end as they were in the beginning. Nevertheless, as the big mouthed, entitled Peggy who believes loyalty earns rewards, Falco is a commanding presence. She is on stage throughout the play and never falters for a moment in her portrayal of this colorful character who denies there is a political machine in Albany but is one of its most complete adherents to its corruption. As Mayor Corning, McKeon has the tired, worn air of a man who loves what he does but is beginning to feel his age and the years adding up. Scolari fills in the underwritten character of Peggy’s long suffering husband Peter and convinces us that he and she have reached a comfortable plateau in their marriage.
Each of the other characters has one meaty scene each, almost verging on the comic as Peggy wants something she may not be entitled to from each. First up is Fitzgerald as Corning’s suave rival seen by Peggy as a traitor to the party, but perfectly in his rights to challenge a man who in 1977 had already been mayor for 35 years. Next is Austin Cauldwell as twenty-eight-year-old Billy McCormick, entirely green to party politics and its loyalties, who Peggy has put up for Albany committeeman without having discovered that he and his fiancée are planning to move to some other city by the end of the school year. Finally, Peggy visits enemy Charlie Ryan who in Pankow’s hands is the only one who takes her down a peg and tells her what no one else will reveal. His verbal fencing with Falco and his no nonsense approach is delightful. As Corning’s estranged wife, Tracy Shayne has an amusingly silent scene which says it all.
Sharr White’s The True is a revealing look at party politics as it was played out in Albany in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, he has not made use of the lessons he has learned as producer/writer for the Showtime Series, The Affair: you have to give the audience a reason to stay engaged with a story to make them care about what happens. The best reason to see The True is for Edie Falco’s commanding and impressive performance which demonstrates that women have always had to be better than men at the same jobs in order to get ahead and to quietly take a great deal of criticism for putting themselves on the line for what they believe in.
The True (extended through October 28, 2018)
The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission