Ed Asner in FDR
(Photo courtesy of The Theatre Guild)
Ed Asner in FDR
(Photo courtesy of The Theatre Guild)
The Pasadena Playhouse finally reopened its doors this week after many months. But sadly, the celebration was dampened by the choice of its first production: Allen Williams' FDR, a rather creaky and often arduous one-man reinterpretation of Dore Schary's bioplay Sunrise At Campobello about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which has been touring the US.

There is no doubt that star Ed Asner -- who is also the show's director -- is suitably presidential, filled with the rage and compassion that made FDR such a great president. Still, the audience is likely to be confused -- and even stupefied -- by the sheer amount of information being rattled off in two hours.

The drama charts Roosevelt's rise from a "Polio-inflicted upside-down turtle" to a highly popular, three-term President of the United States. The work covers a lot of ground: from the electoral wars with opponents like Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey, to FDR's perseverance of not allowing his illness to cripple him, his strength and guidance leading the country out of the Great Depression, and his outrage when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor in 1941.

For all of its insight into history, Williams' play suffers because there's way too much telling about these events, and not enough showing. Hearing about arguments is not half as intriguing as watching them unwind.

When Asner isn't mumbling or slipping into lethargic tones -- which happens too often -- he can be quite commanding. His booming voice shakes the rafters when FDR discovers that Japan dragged the US into war with heinous aggression, and he's on target lambasting the journalists who claimed FDR knew of Pearl Harbor beforehand, and gladly sacrificed lives to feed his warmongering. All is not dreary; the mood lightens when FDR slyly sabotages Wilkie's campaign by connecting him with Isolationists, repeating the names of three Congressmen (including FDR critic Hamilton Fish III) with contempt.

In short, Asner captures the essence of one of America's greatest historical figures; one only wishes he had a better vehicle to do it in.