April 12, 2022
February 1977 — Dan O’Connell is finally dead. So begins Sharr White’s play, The True, performed at Capital Rep, directed by its leader Maggie Cahill. (Runs through April 24.)
O’Connell, 91, was still boss of the political machine he’d built more than half a century earlier. I had to see the play, having authored Albany’s O’Connell Machine — now nearing its own half century mark.
The play’s focus is Polly Noonan, “confidante” of Erastus Corning, whom O’Connell had installed as Albany’s mayor in 1941. Polly had been Corning’s secretary when he was a young state senator, and they’d been very close ever since, with Polly as a behind-the-scenes political operative. (Her granddaughter is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.)
O’Connell’s death occasions something of a power struggle over both the mayoralty and the party chairmanship. But the play is really more about the personal dynamic among Corning, Polly, and her husband Peter Noonan, also a Corning buddy.
It was much better than I expected. Antoinette LaVecchia’s portrayal of Polly was so forceful and compelling, perhaps the play should simply have been titled “Polly.” (“The True” refers to people who are true in their loyalties.)
Audience advisory: the play includes much strong language. Polly Noonan was renowned for her uninhibited tongue.
Particularly riveting was her scene with Jimmy Ryan, an old O’Connell henchman, battling Corning for control. Ryan looks like a slob, in his underwear (?) — but what a powerful personality, another great performance (by Kevin McGuire).
I never met Polly, nor Jimmy Ryan. I did meet Corning several times, interviewing him for my book (he was very gracious), and recall his gratuitously badmouthing Jimmy Ryan as a drunk (in 1972). I also went to Dan O’Connell’s home for an interview, but didn’t get much, he was already very frail. And actually, young fool that I was, I did those interviews before knowing what tough questions to ask.
Michael Pemberton played Corning as a hard-drinking stereotypical old pol. With none of the patrician manner so evident in life.
However, somewhat ironically given its title, the play isn’t presented as all true. Some liberties are taken. Corning’s relationship with Polly is of course central, but there is much talk of his wife; he is told several times to “go home to Betty.” As far as I’m aware, there had been no home with Betty for decades. Corning’s “family life” was entirely with the Noonans.
Not with his own children either. I actually spent time with Erastus Junior, on “numismatic tours” of Russia in the ’90s which he led; and it was strangely evident that his father (by then deceased) was totally a non-person to him.
Late in the play, with Polly hashing things out with Erastus in his living room, Betty finally appears. A ghostly flapper-like figure lurking offstage. Silence. Will she proceed to enter the room? That’s the play’s greatest moment of dramatic tension. Eventually Betty wordlessly exits upstairs.
So — were they ever fucking? Polly and Erastus? The question isn’t skirted, in fact it’s central to the dynamic. Everyone assumed they were. With O’Connell’s death putting Corning under new political pressure, he feels a need to distance himself from Polly. She takes that rather badly.
But the answer to the question was an emphatic “no” — according to Polly. Husband Peter believes her — well, maybe 85% of him does. The question was explored in Paul Grondahl’s magisterial Corning biography, and he came to the same conclusion.
Sex is important. But it’s not everything.