The spine of Sharr White’s new play The True, produced Off-Broadway by The New Group, is the whir of a sewing machine. It’s the tool of the legendary Albany-based political activist Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, played with power and sensitivity by Edie Falco, and it’s also a practical symbol. The efficient whir underscores how she runs her home – in the same straightforward, hardworking, often profane, slyly humorous, deeply strategic way she worked for more than 40 years for and with the Democratic Party machine in the New York capital. Staged by director Scott Elliott and as executed by Falco’s delectable performance, Noonan’s homemaking skills did not diminish her political competence but underscored it, thus giving the White’s audience an intriguing American life to observe.
In the 1970s, political demonstrations and rising feminist empowerment tested many, if not all, of the established political “rules.” In the fictional 1977 Albany of The True, we examine ideas of loyalty, of faithful adherence to the way things have always been done, and how hard that is to change. In this context, White’s play parses the various meanings of “true” and “truth”: true believers in a cause? True blue faithful? Uncovered, unvarnished truth?
We enter the tightly controlled blue-collar sensibility of Albany’s political machine at a point of transition: the death of party boss Dan O’Connell, who determined ward bosses and council positions. Suddenly, both personal and political worlds are teetering. There’s Falco’s Polly, who balances her political work life with her home life with husband Peter (Peter Scolari); there’s the long-married Mayor Erastus Corning (stolid, haunted Michael McKean), who is reeling from the blow of O’Connell’s death, and Corning’s silent, mostly offstage wife (Tracy Shayne). And there’s party operative Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), who we meet late in the story and who possesses lurking, age-old grievances that he attempts to use to further his own political aspirations. Visits are personal and often late at night; doors are unlocked even to testy adversaries. All politics are local. All that’s local is political.
There are a range of reasons why the charming Corning is so shaken by O’Connell’s death. He’s indebted to O’Connell for helping him reach his first political rungs decades earlier, for one. Yet we sense there’s more here: something has truly rattled his equilibrium. A post-funeral scene featuring Polly, Peter, and the Mayor plays out almost like a familiar nightly ritual: Falco’s potent, funny Polly tries to talk sense into Corning; Scolari’s sweet and principled businessman spouse pours drinks. Corning’s 35-year incumbency weighs heavily: he and Polly have long battled rumors of a romantic affair. There are, of course, kernels of truth to the rumor, unpacked as the play proceeds.
Polly believes that their political system does serve the citizens of Albany, and that Albany’s citizens believe in it, too. “Regular people,” she dubs them. “They don’t give a shit what you do behind closed doors so long as their lives are working. But their lives aren’t working anymore.” This conviction is enough to keep Polly focused on making the “system” function — by meeting constituents, by knowing the details of their lives, by showing up for them. Later, she explains the system to newcomer Bill McCormick (pragmatic, quietly feisty Austin Cauldwell), to whom she’s trying to sell the job of committeeman as the entry point for a lifetime political career. “What happens is, you hang in there for 10, 15 years, you get Ward Leader. Okay?,” she explains. “And if you get stars in your eyes, you can get tapped for a run for state rep, even senator. But you pay your dues.” She’s devastated when Bill sees the gig as a summer job, not a calling, but it doesn’t shake her resolve. She just packs him off for the evening. Interview over.
Derek McLane’s flexible, elegant set serves as Polly’s kitchen, Corning’s fancy living room (complete with a swooping stairway and high-arched entrance), and a back-door entrance to Charlie Ryan’s home. While aspects of the Noonans’ home recalls the book-lined study of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the most-used set piece may be the well-stocked bar: multiple, full bottles of different liquors, constantly replenished and repeatedly accessed over the course of the play. The first question to a visitor is “What are you having?” and the second is “Do you need a refill?” Yet it is also notable that no matter where a scene takes place, those floor-to-ceiling bookcases somehow remain. What do they represent? The knowledge held in these characters’ lives? When the books fade into darkness via Jeff Croiter’s lucid, uncomplicated lighting, all we see is bareknuckled political strategizing.
Sure, there are lessons in The True for our own current political lives. The oft-repeated line “You don’t buy loyalty, you inspire it,” for example, inspires thoughtful reflection after the initial chortle. This is a story of people reaching for one another. Late-night scenes between Polly and Peter midway through the play are as touching and, yes, as true as any I’ve seen for a long-married couple. Loyalties are tested, elections are held, liquor is consumed, and three friends who survived decades now must relearn how to value one another.