The story goes in William Kennedy’s “O Albany!” that in 1982, the 67-year-old Polly Noonan (Antoinette LaVecchia) punched out the wife of a Democrat ward leader. The case was ultimately dismissed, but most folks in Albany 40 years ago probably believed it had happened. Judging from the Polly Noonan in Sharr White’s political dramedy, “The True,” we, too, can believe it.
In nine scenes, White artfully plays over the surface of Albany politics in 1977, presenting a cast of colorful characters aspiring to power or trying to maintain it. It’s not a deep analysis of these characters, and it’s not a savage black comedy either, which is often today’s approach to political stories; but the first-rate production at theRep, under Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s beat-perfect direction, offers a lot of humor and some pathos in its depiction of people who are, really, little people.
Who happen to be our elected officials.
Except for Noonan. As she observes, she has never held office, but she is a power behind Mayor Erastus Corning II (Michael Pemberton), in office since 1942, longevity due to the Albany machine, led by Dan O’Connell and cronies who, as the story goes, delivered $5 to voters on Election Day, rigged voting machines to determine who was voting Republican instead of Democrat, and doled out patronage jobs willy-nilly.
After O’Connell dies, Corning faces a primary challenge from Howard Nolan (David Kenner), one engineered by party favorite and Corning rival Charlie Ryan (Kevin McGuire). Corning has decided to cut ties with Noonan. The story goes, at least in this script, that O’Connell told him to distance himself from her, largely because people talk about the nature of their relationship. Romantic? And both of them married? Or maybe the men find this woman too strong for their taste. (“The story goes” could be the subtitle of this play.)
Truth be told, I enjoyed the play well enough because of my long-standing connection to Albany. I’m sure old-timers in Chicago might have the same reaction to a script about the Daleys’ machine. If we don’t learn exactly what makes Noonan tick, and if the question about her relationship to Corning is never definitively answered, well — it’s all history now.
Kudos to the crew, who quickly change the scenery (set by Roman Tatorowicz) between episodes. Note the costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, which comment so vividly on the person wearing the clothes. Devorah Kengmana’s lighting perfectly washes the various areas of the vast stage.
The performances are splendid. Jack Mastrianni scores as the earnest political neophyte Bill McCormack, and Yvonne Perry’s spectral Betty Corning speaks volumes without a word. The car ride featuring the dueling Nolan and Noonan amusingly echoes any old gangster private confab, while the encounter between a disheveled Charlie Ryan and the smartly dressed Noonan is hair-raising. Honor among thieves, indeed!
LaVecchia, Pemberton, and Wynn Harmon as Polly’s husband, Peter, create a scary folie a trois, not just a menage a trois. Peter is damaged goods, and Harmon movingly reveals his wounded heart in scene six. He’s no fool, but he’s capable of playing one. Pemberton’s Corning is dyspeptic, uncertain, and querulous, perhaps suddenly aware of the cost of his life’s choices to himself and his family. Pemberton gives a nuanced portrayal.
LaVecchia brilliantly makes Noonan bawdy, irritating, shrewd, impatient, energetic. In the end she seems as pathetic as her male playmates. “People have agendas other than yours,“ Peter correctly says to her, and it’s her inability to see that that makes her two-dimensional. She’s not a tragic character because she lacks self-awareness.
In the last scene, Polly sits at her sewing machine, stitching culottes and some new mischief now that Rasty has won the election. She reminds me of Dickens’ Madame DeFarge, knitting together her cruelty during the Reign of Terror.
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: Through Apr. 24
HOW MUCH: $57-$22
MORE INFO: 518.346.6204, or capitalrep.org