To anyone who grew up in the Albany area before cable television (or, as I did, in western Massachusetts, served only by Albany stations), the name Erastus Corning was inescapable. For 35 years he was the Democratic mayor of the city, and nightly broadcasts featured him prominently. Sharr White’s marvelous new play The True makes Corning (Michael McKean) a central character in a story of what political parties and machine politics once were and, by contrast, what they have become. It has scope, intelligence and terrific writing.
The real focus of White’s play is the mayor’s longtime fixer, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan—played by Edie Falco as a foul-mouthed dynamo who is constantly embattled, either with Corning; her husband, Peter (Peter Scolari); or one of the mayor’s rivals. (Polly was, incidentally, the grandmother of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.) Polly is abrasive, but effective. As the play opens, Dan O’Connell, the Democratic Party chair, has just been buried, and the mayor wants to assume the mantle of party chief as well.
“This is my party,” says Corning, relaxing with a scotch in the Noonans’ living room. “I’m going to head it, plus I’m going to stay mayor, just like Daley in Chicago.” But Polly foresees danger ahead, and Falco delivers a terrific speech in which White distils the way machine politics once worked, when party functionaries knew every single voter in the district:
“That voter had a problem, they told the committeeman, the committeeman went to the ward leader, the ward leader either solved it. Or went to Dan,” Polly says. “And you know what happened at the end of the day?” Says Corning: “It got taken care of.”
The bulk of the play is concerned with the way Polly tries to get Corning what he wants—even though he has decided she is a liability, disliked by too many within the party, and their association must end. To get back in his graces, she strikes out on her own to smooth his way to the post. Under Scott Elliott’s deft direction, each confrontation is a compelling part of the whole.
Polly’s decision leads first to a scene with Howie Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald), who plans to challenge Corning in the primary. Polly chastises him, but Nolan maintains that he had promised Dan not to run against Corning while Dan was alive. Now the door is open. “You don’t buy loyalty,” Howie tells her. “You inspire it.” To which Polly responds: “This party wasn’t built from people voting their conscience…. It was built on discipline.”
Second, she handpicks a young man, Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell), for a committeeman’s job. He comes to dinner so she can prep him for the duties, and Scolari reminds us what a good comic actor he is as Polly, trying to be chummy, trashes the art on their own walls while he does a slow burn. The evening, however, goes downhill when Polly discovers that Bill isn’t quite the McCormick she had assumed. In a moment when she seems unusually dense, he explains that after a couple years as a committeeman he and his fiancée plan to move to L.A. The cavalier attitude to a job that Polly sees as a lifetime commitment enrages her: “Where is the dedication!” she screams.
Late in the play, John Pankow as the disheveled would-be party leader Charlie Ryan conveys the depth of the party’s loathing for her. When he reveals a secret that demonstrates his loyalty to the late O’Connell that trumps anything she has done for Corning, it shocks her. The round-robin of meetings with these characters and touching base with Erastus constitutes White’s plot, laced with signposts of the 1970s: a newscaster talks about turning over the Panama Canal; Ryan wants to watch Ironside; Polly mentions the difficulty of understanding the metric system.
White also touches on the personal repercussions of political life. Tracy Shayne as Betty, often talked about by Corning and the Noonans, gives us one priceless glimpse of the disenchanted spouse—and in her brief moment rises to the excellence of the rest of the cast. Ryan’s home life sounds equally out of whack, and Peter, mostly a bystander who by turn supports and clashes with Polly, must contend with rumors that she is “the mayor’s girlfriend.” He needs periodic reassurance from her that it’s not true, although it’s clear that he loves and trusts her.
White’s glimpse of machine politics in the 1970s exposes the cutthroat battles inside the party and with Republicans. (It’s almost unspoken that the constituency is white people.) The portrait holds a bit of nostalgia as well, since White makes clear that party politics had reached a turning point. It’s impossible not to wonder whether the free-for-all governance of today is a better solution.
“There’s no young blood anymore,” Polly complains to Erastus. “The whole party’s gettin’ old. And the youth today, they don’t give a shit.”
“It’s the end of an era,” says the mayor. “That’s all.”
The New Group production of Sharr White’s The True runs through Oct. 21 at the Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and at 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday; additional Wednesday matinees have been added on Wednesday, Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, 10 and 24. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, stop by the box office from noon to 8 p.m., or visit thenewgroup.org.