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According to Tip

Ken Howard perfectly captures former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill in Dan Flavin's straightforward solo play.

Ken Howard in According to Tip
(© Andrew Brilliant)
You don't have to come from Massachusetts to appreciate the kind of politician Tip O'Neill was or to understand the reverence in which he's still held, more than a decade after his death. In According to Tip, Dan Flavin's rumpled suit of a solo play about the late Speaker of the House, now at Watertown's New Rep, Ken Howard captures him perfectly: a genuinely humble man, who never forgot his working-class roots or stinted on his mission to stand up for "the little guy" -- and one who was always ready with a common-sense approach to problems, from the interpersonal to the international.

Flavin's script and Janie E. Howland's set places O'Neill at the peak of his power -- comfortably ensconced in his Senate office and discoursing amiably about how he got there. Caricatures of the seven presidents under whom he served -- some devotedly, others contemptuously -- line the walls, along with plentiful mementos. A bat -- signed Yaz -- summons the nineteenth-century forebear (famed for his foul tips) from whom he inherited his nickname, while a lawnmower is there as a reminder of "how I got into Harvard."

So personable is this big-hearted bear of a guy, it's easy to see how he rose to the top without any backroom finagling. O'Neill learned early in his career -- from his elocution teacher, whose vote he presumed he could count on -- that "People like to be ahsked." So whatever he wanted -- whether it was votes, backing, a policy change or personal favor -- he came right out and requested.

According to these reminiscences, which Howard shares like a pal over a poker game, O'Neill never cut his conscience to fit the prevailing political fashions. At the height of the Red Menace, he recommended that teachers be excused from having to sign a Loyalty Oath. Adhering to his view that "All politics is local," he argued that he doubted his own sister was a Commie. This stance set off the first of many firestorms: "You'd think I'd voted for a repeal of motherhood."

From then on, he never shied from controversy, observing: "If you take an unpopular position, as long as you're on the level about it, people will hear you out." As a Catholic, he decried the "right to choose," but backed a woman's right for an abortion as "the law of the land," thereby earning the censure of Cardinal Law. And he was the first Democrat to critique Lyndon B. Johnson's stance on Vietnam, noting, "It's a damn sight easier to get into a war than it is to get out."

Throughout the leisurely, two-hour performance, contemporary resonances prompt frequent outbreaks of applause, supplementing the (unnecessary) sound-track version. Weaving his anecdotes with comic Irish songs and even a nostalgic waltz -- in honor of Millie, the high-school sweetheart who became his wife and raised five children pretty much singlehandedly, while he commuted home on weekends -- O'Neill emerges as a stand-up guy with a number of regrets, but a commendable record overall. Indeed, you'll wish there were more of his ilk running the country today.


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