Machiavelli With a Sewing Machine: Edie Falco in ‘The True’
The Daily Beast
September 20, 2018
‘The True’ is about a 1977 mayoral election in Albany, New York. But at the heart of the play, as brilliantly played by Edie Falco and Peter Scolari, is a tender, complex marriage.
Edie Falco, of Nurse Jackie and Sopranos renown, begins and ends The True, a play by Sharr White, stationed behind a sewing machine—a prop that is both telling and deceptive.
Falco’s character, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, is no stereotypical housewife (no matter the 1970s era we find her in). Her most impressive stitching is saved for politics, its alliances and vendettas. Polly’s home is an extension of the male-dominated office or bar, where power is discussed, and parlayed, over silky glasses of scotch and wickedly strong Martinis.
White’s play, staged by The New Group and directed by its founding artistic director, Scott Elliott, is both a somewhat stilted parlor game for political wonks who gravitate to the power games of local politics, yet also, thankfully, a portrait of complex marriages with performances that vividly crackle.
It is 1977 in Albany, New York, and this is immediately visible in Derek McLane’s brilliant design of Polly (Falco) and Peter Noonan’s (Peter Scolari) living room, with its orange swirling wallpaper.
The title of the play is a deliberate mystery. White is investigating many things that may or may not be true: the marriage between Polly and Peter, for example, with the constant presence of Mayor Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), whom Polly is a devoted confidante to. Whom does she truly love?
What is the true nature of Democratic politics and the party itself? Is the steadfast commitment to the party that Polly represents—really, she doesn’t want to think about anything else, do anything else—already lost in time?
A homely, constantly talking Machiavelli, deeply steeped in the city’s politics, she thinks and plots as she guides her machine through making perfect seams. “The party is not built on conscience,” says Polly. “It was built on discipline. Discipline, and the idea that if you stay true, you’re going to get your due!”
White could not have known that the play would be performed at a moment when the Democratic Party, most visibly in New York, is going through roiling change, its complexion changed by the displacement of established white male candidates (like Erastus in the play) by a group of more radically minded female candidates of color.
Polly is more professionally impressive than the politician she is devoted to, but it is never a question that this should be her battle for office, not his.
For Polly, politics is chess in service to Erastus; it’s doing time, it’s knowing your streets and voters intimately. There are no philosophical discussions in the play about principle, moral quandaries, and policy; it’s just shoe-leather, loyalty, deal-making, and game-playing.
Is Erastus, battling for party control while at the same time fighting the fiercest primary challenge of his life as mayor, truly committed to Polly, public service, or simply the exercise of staying in power as he has done for many years? Erastus wants to be chairman of the party and mayor, but the death of his friend, the previous chairman, has left a power vacuum that could shunt aside both Erastus and Polly.
Erastus seems exhausted by the prospect of a fight, while Polly relishes it.
“Are you finished?” Polly is asked near the beginning of the play. “I’m just catching my breath,” she shoots back.
The furiously maneuvering Polly is the biggest mystery of the play. The excellent Falco’s beady fierceness is based on a long-held, very real love for Erastus, and you do wonder: Why on earth does Peter put up with it, happening right in front of him? Indeed, he is a devoted friend to Erastus himself.
The play is most thrilling when burrowing inside Peter and Polly’s relationship.
It would be so easy for Falco to play Polly as caustic and ball-busting, and Scolari’s Peter to be meek, hen-pecked, fooled, and foolish. But the handsome Scolari exquisitely configures Peter as the complex opposite of all those things. There is a beautiful scene in which Peter tells Polly that he knows, he hears, all the gossip about his wife and Erastus. He also knows the depth of her love for him.
In less adept hands, Polly and Peter could be a sub-Albee-ish George and Martha, but their squabbling, as they put it, is calmer and based on deep mutuality. They are not obviously harmed. They are not out to harm each other. They are intelligent, they share interests.
Peter is nobody’s fool: When Polly invites a young committee man (a delightfully nonplussed Austin Cauldwell) over to politically woo him, the show’s best comedy unfolds as Peter slyly and devastatingly tests their guest through his choice of drinks. Peter’s joke, and mock-horror, that one of the young man’s relations died of being “a Republican” is delicious.
Peter is a perfect foil and political partner; and his and Polly’s love is both constant and frail—they both know how much examination and testing it can bear. Scolari and Falco’s body language and expressions around each other are a revealing play in themselves.
Meanwhile, Erastus and Polly know the love they have for each other, and their love for him. And so, this years-long delicate dance continues. Something will give in the end, you feel, but not yet.
And then there is Betty, Erastus’ wife (Tracy Shayne), mentioned right at the beginning of The True and right at the end, and responsible for the play’s one truly show-stopping moment. As Erastus and Polly talk about their knotted feelings for each other, Shayne appears, the archetypal 1970s upper middle-class housewife, in Clint Ramos’ gorgeously designed diaphanous nightgown, with slightly drunken gait.
Betty says not a word, yet hears and understands everything, and always has. She edges unsteadily down the stairs, past Polly and Erastus, and then goes back past them, like a supremely camp, sad, commanding ghost. What they have, as Polly says, is not a ménage à trois, “it’s a ménage à four—whatever the hell you want to call it. Point is, innocent, not innocent, we’re all a part of our lives.”
And, it turns out, the silent Betty has exerted the most force of all.
The playing out of the political games feels quotidian and is the weakest part of the play, pivoting on Polly’s furious busy-bodying, but at least Polly and Erastus’ nemeses ask her the niggling question that bothered this reviewer.
Why is she doing all this? Sure, she loves Erastus. Sure, she believes that the party is about to change, and not for the better. But all this for that? What, ultimately, does she get from it, because it can never be Erastus? It isn’t power either.
The play ends, as you expect, on election night, and with Falco stationed behind that meaning-packed sewing machine.
Unstated, for this reviewer, the play is about a woman who shouldn’t be the power behind the throne, but occupying it herself—she has more skills and nous than the men contesting the throne itself. In 1977 in Albany, perhaps Sharr’s unspoken point is that Polly hasn’t conceived of this. The men around her certainly haven’t.
Or perhaps she prefers this way to wield power. Maybe aging and time will mean Polly never assumes office, as she could. But as candidates as diverse as Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have shown since, Polly’s own time is tantalizingly near.