A special theatrical alchemy happens when a great actor plays a bigger-than-life, flawed but charismatic personality. Think of Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane, Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry, and Robert Preston’s Harold Hill. A couple of years ago, Bryan Cranston won a Tony portaying one such figure from the real world – Lyndon B. Johnson.
Local audiences can see this phenomenon right here, right now, in the premiere production of playwright Bruce Graham’s Rizzo.
You probably think I’m refering to Scott Greer, one of our finest actors, in the juicy title role. Well, yes I am – in part. (We’ll get to him in a minute.)
But I’m also talking about Akeem Davis, who plays (as many of the ensemble cast do) multiple characters. He’s excellent in all of them, but Davis truly shines as Cecil B. Moore, the black activist lawyer and Rizzo nemesis. When Davis-Moore stands up to Greer-Rizzo, Philly’s legendarily tough-as-nails mayor has met his match. It’s a high octane scene that lasts only a few minutes – I wished it had gone on much longer.
For better and worse, extended scenes are not Graham’s style. Adapting a biography by Sal Paolantino, the playwright goes for a fast-paced sequence of almost cinematically quick vignettes, moving back and forth across locations, situations and more than 20 years. It makes for an exhilarating two hours, and Graham’s skill is such that even if we miss a few details, the thrust of the narrative is clear. This is Philadelphia’s mythic politico – seen in rise and fall, warts and all. But you don’t get much of Rizzo’s inner life, nor a deeper sense of what motivated him. There are a few such moments – a charged encounter with Rizzo’s father (William Rawhill, terrific here and in other roles), and the scene with Cecil B. Moore that I mentioned.
But more of it is merely sketched in, including Rizzo’s relationship with always-patient wife Carmella, played here by the wonderful Amanda Schoonover. (She is the only female actor in this cast of seven. Rizzo certainly presents a man’s world, though it’s great to see Schoonover especially as feisty activist Shelly Yanoff – finally, a woman who stands up to Frank!)
A few additional scenes that dug deeper – gave us more sense of the dejected Rizzo who left office in a cloud of controversy, for example – could turns what is now an entertaining evening into a memorable one.
Still, there’s much to savor here – including Scott Greer. At first, I thought his performance surprisingly restrained, but I came to see the wisdom and artistry in it. What Greer is doing is playing not a snapshot Frank Rizzo, but real person. You may well leave thinking you didn’t know Frank Rizzo as well as you thought – which I’d say is as it should be.
Whether the play has a future beyond local productions is, as yet, an unanswered question – but Rizzo is certainly catnip for Philadelphians. Audiences laughed heartily at jokes with special meaning to the natives. (“Where did you park?”—“Where else?: Down the middle of Broad Street.”)
In fact, the whole of Rizzo is one big Best of Philly – the story, the theatre company, the playwright, director, actors, and designers are all locals, and terrific assets to our community. No wonder the enthusiasm was so palpable – there’s pleasure in routing for the home team – particularly when they win.
Rizzo, Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, through November 8th. www.theatreexile.org