Our current President may have gotten elected by promising to “drain the swamp,” but when it comes to corruption, DC has nothing on Albany, NY’s long-standing reputation for misdeeds. But Sharr White’s riveting new play The True, set in 1977 during the penultimate mayoral campaign of Erastus Corning II’s (Michael McKean) 40+ years in office, brushes aside the corruption whispers. Instead, the picture painted by his chief fixer and confidant, Polly Noonan (Edie Falco), is a Democratic Party with heart, that cares. And expects loyalty in the voting booth in return.
The True is based on real people and real events. “Rasty” Corning II was Albany’s longest serving mayor to date. He held the position from 1942 to 1983 when he died in office. Dorothea Polly Noonan started out in 1937 as his secretary at age 22 when he was elected as a State Senator. She became his closest confidante, and for over 30 years until her death, the Chairwoman of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club. And oh yes, she was U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother. In The True she is almost always at her sewing machine when she’s at home, at one point making culottes for her granddaughter Kirsten.
The True revolves around the 1977 death of Democratic Party machine boss Dan O’Connell during the run-up to elections, and the subsequent power plays by various factions. But this is definitely a story told from a woman’s point of view during a time when women didn’t have a lot of political clout. Today, Polly Noonan would have been running for office herself, not trying to coach someone else through the process of getting elected. Polly was a tough, clear-eyed, pragmatic operator who saw what had to be done and didn’t suffer fools easily. She had strong principles and loyalties that she would not abandon in the face of any opposition. She was no push over, and she didn’t mince words. In fact, her language in the play is definitely R-rated.
But although she is deeply involved in the political maneuverings of the election cycle, she sees it as a means to a justifiable end. She defends herself against accusations of being part of a political “machine” by saying “You, me, Erastus. We're people. Who care about people. A machine doesn't care. A machine doesn't have heart. We have heart.” And when she rails at Erastus for being too aloof, being out of touch:
“Used to be, a, a...a man gets crippled on the job, say? Or God forbid, dies? Whatever? Say, leaves a mother with three children? By God that funeral would get paid for. Committeeman would come by the house next day, that mother would have a job. And you know who would get the vote next fall?...Democrats!”
It’s certainly a timely moment for Mr. White to wrestle with this subject. The ideas of governmental corruption and grass roots organizing couldn’t be more relevant. And skewing the perspective just enough to see the quid pro quo possibilities for the populace does make it seem a little less sinister.
On an intimate level, the relationships between the three main characters, Erastus, Polly, and her husband Peter (Peter Scolari), are also fascinating and extremely well drawn, and powerfully portrayed by the performers. There were rumors and speculations for many years about the nature of the relationship between Polly Noonan and Erastus Corning, that were emphatically denied by them both. In Sharr White’s The True, those rumors are the source of tension and disruption. And they provide a plot point that supposedly deviates from actual events.
Edie Falco gives us another award worthy performance as Dorothea Polly Noonan. We all know that she’s a great dramatic actress - she’s been nominated for over 40 awards for her screen and theater work and won 11 of them. The last scene between her and Michael McKean as Erastus, is a breathtaking, heartbreaker of words not said, but meanings clear. She’s also got impeccable comic timing as evidenced in the first scene of the play. Between Mr. White’s dialog and her delivery, I could have sworn my Jewish grandmother was on stage. Nobody since Grandma has had the ability to soothe with one sentence and eviscerate with the next. It’s a gift, I tell you.
(Photo by Monique Carboni)
What the popular press says...
"Political operations — like the one the Democrats ran for decades in Albany — probably got called machines because of their reliability. Put some constituent service in one end (along with, say, a $5 bill for each voter) and get a legislative majority out the other. That may not sound like a scintillating subject to build a play upon, but Sharr White’s The True, which opened on Thursday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is itself a kind of machine. Put some snappy dialogue, a bit of skulduggery and a stellar cast led by Edie Falco in one end and get a damn good time out the other."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"The play's biggest scandal is its flip-flopping tone, which careers from quippy comedy to political thriller to sentimental nomance. But although The True sometimes seems falser than fiction, Falco is consistently thrilling. Under Scott Elliott's direction, she delivers a rich portrait of an ambitious woman constrained by the gender politics of her time—but who did inspire her granddaughter to pursue a career in government. You probably have heard her name: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
"After seeing The True, I couldn’t wait to get home to turn on Chris Matthews to watch him pummel Paul Manafort and Brett Kavanaugh. When any hour of MSNBC is more compelling than what’s happening on stage, your play is in trouble."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Pity the poor playwright attempting to write a political drama these days. After all, what could possibly compete with the daily goings-on in our nation's capital? Certainly not the new play by Sharr White (author of the acclaimed drama The Other Place) which squanders the talents of its formidable cast. Based on fact but awash in turgid soap opera-style melodrama, The True, being given its world premiere by off-Broadway's The New Group, should have been far more compelling than it is."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"With the midterm elections looming, Sharr White’s bruising political drama about real-life machine politics in 1977 Albany lands at an opportune moment to educate us on how the real pros used to play dirty politics. Edie Falco turns in a galvanic performance as Polly Noonan, the longtime companion and political confidante of Erastus Corning II, the patrician Mayor of Albany played with suave assurance by Michael McKean."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...