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 (the righteous Chuck McGill in “Better Call Saul”).
Rude, crude, and dangerous, Polly is like a self-propelled firecracker, spitting sparks of brilliance as it spins and spins and eventually burns itself out. Talking non-stop and at the top of her lungs, Falco embodies every ounce of Polly’s manic energy and driving ambition; but she also acknowledges Polly’s near-religious devotion to the Democratic Party and honors her genuine dedication to her political cause.
It’s election season, and Polly is all fired up to go. But after eleven terms as mayor, Corning has lost heart. He’s mourning the loss of his political mentor and personal father figure, 92-year-old Daniel P. O’Connell, the powerful party boss whose death has left the Democrats bereft of their legendary leader. A gentleman politico to the core, he’s also horrified that Polly could come back from O’Connell’s funeral raring to throw herself into election politics. “You’d think everybody would have a little respect for the dead,” Polly says, hilariously oblivious to her own speedy emotional recovery.
In the riveting opening scene, Corning is pacing the floor of the Noonans’ living room (designed in classy-but-comfortable style by Derek McLane) and nursing a drink. Her understanding husband Peter — played with perfect restraint, and demonstrable love and pride for his fiery spouse, by the invaluable Peter Scolari — is relaxed in an armchair, reading the newspaper. Polly is working at a noisy sewing machine, seemingly soothed by the clickety-clack sound that reflects her own unrelenting delivery. Disapproving of Corning’s flagging commitment to the party, Polly easily goads him into a testy argument that escalates into a battle of wills.
Polly is so shrewish and Corning so beaten down that Peter feels obliged to step in and tell her to “ease up.” “I’m eased,” she says, gritting her teeth and smiling sweetly. “This is me being eased.”
Polly is obviously a brilliant strategist. This is no time for mourning, not with Dan O’Connell in his grave and his would-be successors plotting in the dark. It’s plain to Polly that the Party machine is breaking up and Corning is under attack by his worst enemy, Charlie Ryan, a sleazy party boss from the old school in John Pankow’s fists-up, pants-down performance.
“Charlie Ryan wants to be Dan O’Connell, now that Dan’s dead,” she says, getting to the point, “and Charlie’ll want to install (his own) pet mayor to have at his side.” Sensing Corning’s vulnerability in the upcoming primary, Ryan has thrown his own considerable political muscle behind Howard C. Noland, a young, slick and (in Glenn Fitzgerald’s well-oiled performance) slimy State Senator with covetous eyes on the prize. But Polly is riding the mayor so hard that Peter tells her to back off. “If somebody wants my opinion,” Polly snaps, “I’m going to give it.” “Usually, even when they don’t want it,” Peter notes.
In his laser-focused view, White (“The Other Place”) shows us exactly how machine politics works without taking a moral position on the patronage system on which it’s based. His only false step is the character of Bill McCormick, a bland young man (given a bland perf by Austin Cauldwell) who is Polly’s choice to represent the next generation of pols by running for Committeeman.
“You don’t go work for a Senator if you just want a job!” she lectures the poor kid. “You go to work for a Senator to do something, build something.” But as she’s drawn here, Polly is far too shrewd a judge of character to pick such an obvious non-starter. Fake the scene may be, but it does allow Polly to declare the foundation of her own monomania: it’s blind, selfless dedication to a political party, a cause, a means of doing shady but basically honorable business.
Like a true machine politician, Polly doesn’t admit that the machine even exists. “We’re people,” she insists. “Who care about people. A machine doesn’t care. A machine doesn’t have heart. We have heart!”
But in the end, it’s her own fault that the machine is grinding to a halt. She saw the future coming, but she didn’t get it. What she does get, though, are the limitations that her gender places on her own rise to power in the party. She claims she doesn’t care; and indeed, being the power behind the throne is more challenging for her than sitting on the throne herself. But future generations of women did — and do — care about being shut out of the dirty games that the old boys play. And they need to know what women like Polly did for them by working behind the scenes, preparing the way.
Anyone who has ever been involved in a political campaign should find this play enthralling. Everyone else in the room can marvel at the ferocity of Falco’s performance and the passion of her character. Casting her in this role was a genius move; but then, director Scott Elliott has done an impeccable job of casting this show overall for The New Group. The material might not be to everyone’s taste, but you have to marvel at the craftmanship.