The opening stage picture tells us a lot about Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, the indefatigable, tough-as-nails woman at the center of Sharr White's The True, currently making its world premiere with the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center: Noonan (portrayed by the similarly unflinching Edie Falco) is seated at a sewing machine, busily mending a skirt as she dispenses the smartest political analysis in the room. Two seated men flank her, downing their scotches to the sound of her good sense. It's a striking first impression of a woman who, by all accounts, was both a nurturing grandmother and a ball-busting party apparatchik.
The real-life Noonan was the longtime confidant of Mayor Erastus Corning II (a haggard and furtive Michael McKean), who ran Albany from 1942 until his death in 1983. The play opens in 1977, in the immediate wake of the death of Democratic Party boss Dan O'Connell. O'Connell was like a father to the bereft Corning. Noonan, whose political career never benefited from such a filial relationship, urges him to snap out of his grief, warning that an inevitable power reshuffle will probably lead to a primary challenge from the upstart Howard C. Nolan (an aristocratic Glenn Fitzgerald). Inexplicably, Corning responds to this sage advice by informing her that they need to part ways. This leaves the incredulous Noonan struggling for answers as she attempts to save Corning's job without his cooperation.
A lesser play would be content to convey the feminist fable of a woman who had to work twice as hard for half as much, losing sleep in the administration of male power while never actually wielding it herself. But the truth is never quite so simple in The True: While attempting to twist Nolan's arm, Noonan denies that there is such a thing as a "Democratic machine," insisting that a machine doesn't have a heart or good intentions like she does. "We're people," she coos, "who care about people." In her case, she's also an unelected person, a fact that becomes distressing once she pulls out her little book of patronage and favors.
And for someone who claims to understand that politics is all about people, it certainly takes Polly by surprise to learn that the generation coming after her might have different ideas about their lives: In a particularly illuminating scene, she attempts to recruit 28-year-old Bill McCormick (an appropriately befuddled-looking Austin Cauldwell) as a Democratic committeeman, only to become frustrated when her sensible plan for the rest of his life grinds against his desire to move to California in the future. Practical child of the Depression that she is, she cannot understand this spoiled Baby Boomer who would turn his nose up at a lifetime position in upstate New York. White hints that there are lessons to be gleaned from this exchange now that American politics once again face a generational turning point.
Director Scott Elliott's elegant period production feels undeniably relevant while firmly rooting its aesthetic in 1977: The earth tones of Derek McLane's set look handsome under Jeff Croiter's intimate incandescent lighting. Clint Ramos costumes the cast in authentic late-'70s duds, with shrewd attention paid to suits and neckties. Falco's costumes are also impressively practical: She is rarely offstage, so has to make her quick changes onstage during the transitions. As she slips out of her costume, we hear Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's transition music, a sly tango that feels mysterious and just a little bit sexy.
White further complicates his story with a little sex, demonstrating how politics cannot help but become personal when you spend a life in them: The true nature of Noonan's relationship with Corning was the subject of much speculation and innuendo, and that manifests itself here, most urgently in the performance of Peter Scolari. He plays Polly's husband, Peter, a man from whom the phrase "long-suffering" feels like an understatement. As dry martinis pass over his taut lips, Scolari delivers one of the most realistic and moving performances of true love I've witnessed.
Of course, Falco's Noonan is hard not to love. Ruthless, smart, and unfailingly funny, she's the kind of fabulous that makes you want to shout "yaaasssss," only to feel guilty about it later when you realize you're cheering the stylish subversion of democracy. That's a lesson progressive Democrats cannot learn enough — just one of many in this riveting history play.
The True feels particularly timely following New York's recent primary elections. The name Cuomo is uttered late in the script (1977 was the year Mario Cuomo ran against Ed Koch for mayor of New York City), giving New Yorkers the opportunity to ponder the role dynastic politics play in our state. This point isn't merely a footnote: Noonan's granddaughter, Kirsten Gillibrand, is currently the junior US Senator from New York. Whoever said that Democrats aren't pro-family?