Sharr White’s The True, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, will have you consulting Wiki or other sources to fill in a few details. Erastus Corning II, the Albany mayor at the center of the show, was the great-grandson of the industrial titan, and the son and nephew of distinguished New York politicians. He is the city’s longest-serving mayor to date, in office from Roosevelt (1942) to Reagan (1983, his death). With him in charge the Albany political machine ran smoothly for Democrats.
But within his bios you won’t find any mention of the power behind the throne, and the center of The True, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan. As incarnated by the great Edie Falco in White’s whip-smart, brash, and witty play, it’s the tart-tongued Noonan who keeps everyone in line, with a literal kitchen cabinet of her, Erastus (Michael McKean), and husband Peter (Peter Scolari) convening for late-night meetings at her house. As the show begins (in Derek McLane’s lived-in set) Polly knits as Erastus frets–it’s 1977, and having won reelection by just a whisker the last time out a new campaign is beginning as the old order dies off. The big change he envisions is a bombshell: Polly is out as his manager. He thinks the rumors percolating about their relationship, gossip Peter has had to learn to live with through their occasionally rocky marriage, may make the difference. So Polly is gone. But this consummate political animal can’t stay gone, and in the course of the production she continues to fix things for Erastus, while tending to her husband. “It’s like a menage a trois, with all the bad parts and none of the good,” she laments.
The sewing and knitting recall the treacherous Madame Defarge of A Tale of Two Cities, but White’s is a multifaceted portrait. White’s best play before this, The Other Place, starred Laurie Metcalf as a scientist trying to maintain her grip on sanity as neurological disorder wore her down. Polly’s place is the jungle of Albany politics, and the play leaves her kitchen for hush-hush meetings with a potential opponent to Erastus, Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald), and a weight-throwing party bigwig, Charlie (John Pankow, who I didn’t recognize in Clint Ramos’ shambles of costuming for the part). In the one-act play’s best and most incisive scene, staged dexterously by director Scott Elliott (in a return to form for The New Group after a wobbly prior season), Polly courts a young councilman, Bill (Austin McCormick), as a hedge against Nolan and Charlie’s ambitions. To her horror, however, Bill is only interested in dabbling in politics before heading out to L.A. with his fiancÁ©e; he is not one of “the true.”
The commitment to party above all else is the emotional thread of The True. Erastus and Polly did share a moment once, but for Peter that pales besides her devotion to the game. McKean and Scolari, old pros who have seen their careers reactivated by meaty roles on TV and onstage, form the tightest of ensembles with Falco. The trio is a pressurized unit on the brink of explosion, held together by Peter’s whiskey and Polly’s helpings of Irish stew and soda bread. Polly’s smile at the end could signal hard-fought relief, or a benediction for a future where women are in the driver’s seat–her granddaughter, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is a force in state politics.