written and performed by Holland Taylor
directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein
sets by Michael Fagin
costumes by Julie Weiss
lighting by Matthew Richards
sound by Ken Huncovsky; projections by Zachary Borova
wig design by Paul Huntley
production manager, Peter Fulbright
production stage manager, J. P. Elins
general manager, 101 Productions Ltd.
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater
I really wanted to like Ann, Holland Taylor’s solo show about Texas governor (1991-95), Ann Richards, better than I could in the end. Her subject was, as I remember, quite an appealing figure in politics in her time. Beyond the refreshing anomaly of a Democratic woman running the state of Texas and her frank manner of expressing herself in her own racy Texan vernacular, she seemed to project something of the aura of a charismatic public figure. What’s more, from a WQXR interview at the Greene Space, Ms. Taylor gave an impression that she had some strong personal relation to Richards’ legend and legacy. I arrived at the Vivian Beaumont Theater with the expectation of basking in an almost channelled recreation of Ann Richards’ radiance. Expectations are perilous and perhaps unprofessional, but that is what gets people, even critics, in the seats, and it is usually possible for a critic to enter a dispassionate mental void before the curtain goes up.
Unfortunately, this production, not unlike Ann Richards’ second campaign for governor, misfired in virtually every way it could, and its impression of general slickness in design as well as in the performance, made it difficult to find apologies for its shortcomings. If a theatrical work can use so many resources to say so little, why bother?
To return to the subject of expectations, however, I should confess that several years of constant exposure to solo theater have left me with the belief that the power of the genre lies in its intimacy and quirkiness. It allows a single performer/creator either to navigate around a population of varied characters or to excavate a single personality in depth. The solo format enables the performer to accomplish these in a lean, direct way, cutting straight to the heart and the brain of things with a minimum of material baggage—and of course expense. Even the endlessly exploited model of this sort of popular solo performance, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight, was severely spare, with only a few pieces of period furniture, a costume, and a charismatic actor. (Anyone remember Roy Dotrice’s delightful performance in Patrick Garland’s Brief Lives, after John Aubrey? Its set and costume were admittedly quite elaborate, but deliciously redolent of seventeenth century dust.)
Ann commenced, after a series of projections showing her at the Democratic National Convention and in other political situations, from a lectern from which, heavily amplified, as people are in such circumstances, she addressed a group of graduating students about her career. This, the first “act” of the play, gave Ms. Taylor a springboard to survey Ann Richards’ earlier life, chronologically, as a first person narrative. What elevated this out of bald literalism was Taylor’s judicious decision to cast it around Ann’s father, who clearly inspired a good deal of warm feeling in her and was also a role model, initiating her to the masculine world of power and influence in Texas, as far as he himself was from those spheres. This much proved and efficient and engaging exercise in character-creation. This early trajectory culminated in a marriage to a teen-age boyfriend, which lasted a little over a decade, and an addiction to alcohol, which brought her into rehab and AA. With her soon-to-be ex-husband’s approval she launched her political career at this point, and it became an obsession for her. How else would a woman get into office in Texas? (Imagine how much easier it was for George W. Bush, who defeated her in her second campaign for governor, and who is not mentioned in the play, although Richards characterized him most aptly on numerous occasions!) From there, Richards tells the story of her political career, as more of a standard career-story, less personalized and less interesting, as her warm, encouraging father and her cold, disapproving mother fade into the background.
The unofficial, undifferentiated second act of the play, the longest section, which is broken in to two sections by the intermission, is a “day in the life of…” survey of a typical workday at the office for Gov. Richards. As one might expect she juggles many different responsibilities—a speaking trip to a small Texan town, the scolding of negligent aides, a possible stay of execution, President Clinton, favors for her staff, Fourth of July celebrations, within her family and officially, touchy feelings among her adult children…and so on. Scenes of this sort are common in biopics, but not on stage. Film directors are wisely inclined to condensed them into a rapid-fire series of vignettes, never exceeding three or four minutes. Taylor made this into a bloated torso of repetitive actions, decorated with an endless flow of Richards’ colorful wisecracks. Her witticisms, often obscene, are amusing enough in themselves, but one soon tires of them. The problem with stringing them along out of their original context within a constructed one of daily duties, is that they proceed to no end. The whole central section of the play goes nowhere. Eventually one prays for the watertreading to end.
By this time Ms. Taylor showed some signs of fatigue: her Texas accent intermittently disappeared, coming back in a mitigated form. Holland Taylor the playwright also encountered the problem of bringing an overlong play to an end. (The play is close to two hours long—very long for a solo show.) Ms. Taylor’s solution came as a surprise, almost a shock. As the rear curtain closed on the New York office Ann Richards occupied in 2001 and the ex-governor took a seat at the front of the stage, the play flattened out into a prosing sermon on the American system and the duty of the public servant and the citizen, as exemplified by what we have just seen and heard over the post 90 minutes. This wide-eyed pep talk made for a vapid conclusion to an inconsistently diverting, earthbound biographical narrative, and the waving Stars and Stripes in the background seemed ludicrous in a New York theater. This was bad theater, bad political theater, and bad political discourse, in that it partially reinforced the tragic flaw in the American people—their belief that everything will be all right in this country—thanks to the Constitution, if American voters only live up to their responsibilities. Given the depths to which education, social and political awareness, and politics have sunk, I found this naive message irrelevant and uninspiring. Not that Ann Richards shouldn’t be an example for us all. For every Richards there are ten, if not a hundred, Bushes, so it behooves potential Richardses to bestir themselves.
But just how does one write and produce effective political theater these days?
Ann might have been something of a success, if it had at least shown us what was unique about Ann Richards, and I’m sure there was something special about her, beyond her drunkologue and her Texan way with words—pure Texas barbecue. This pedestrian survey of the events and the more obvious themes in Ann Richards’ life failed to fulfil what Holland Taylor promised, as well as the dramatic promise of Ann Richards’ life and words.
I have to mention a shortcoming in the design, or costuming, of the show. Holland Taylor appears throughout in a white wig resembling Ann Richards’ trademark “Repubican hairdo” and a white suit. This barrage of white under stage lights became very hard to look at, and I’ve noticed that Governor Richards herself often favored navy and other colors that would have been easier on the eye. If there is symbolism this, it’s pretty clear that Richards herself was the last person on earth who would have wanted to be seen as an angel.
Thanks to Shakespeare and Company and the United Solo Theater Festival, I’ve seen far better plays about a public figure/celebrity and a far better play about Texas in the past few months. Molly Montgomery’s Snakes I Have Known gave us generous hospitality amidst a wealthy Texan family on their spread, only a few hundred miles from Dallas. This native Texan inspired affection and respect for the ways of her family, as well as a variety of genuine Texas accents, and some Texan ribaldry of a subtler and more penetrating kind than a politician can deliver within any one’s earshot. Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf was a colorful and detailed psycho-social study of the beloved jazz master. It also had an elaborate set, but not a cold reconstruction of official spaces, but an accurately observed hotel room of the early 1970s, lovingly shopped at thrift stores and antique shops. Teachout’s characterization of Louis Armstrong, magisterially acted by John Douglas Thompson, was astonishing, as well as his involving, if not always perfect, command of dramatic narrative, given that he had written an expository biography of Satchmo only a year or two before. Grace Kiley in her Longing for Grace walked straight through the dead weight and clichés of celebrity biography and got hold of aspects of Grace Kelly’s life of intimate meaning for herself. In this way she was able to integrate her story in a convincing way and to create a deeply moving portrait of an artist who willingly entered a trap which cut her off from all that most mattered to her. These were all entirely in the spirit of solo theater and—somewhere in the audience—a tear was shed at all of them—unlike Holland Taylor’s singularly uninvolving play.