BWW Review: The raucous 1944 Democratic CONVENTION reenacted and you are there
Ever wanted to sit on the floor during a Presidential nominating National Convention? The opportunity is available in Brooklyn at the Irondale Center. Danny Rocco's play immerses its audience onto the floor of the 1944 Democratic convention. Roosevelt had already served four terms and was not expected to live through his next one. A battle for the Vice Presidency - and for the likely next President - occurred. That juicy political story is retold here with a huge cast of forty actors.
The candidates for Vice President included the incumbent Henry A. Wallace and Harry S. Truman. Although Wallace was the President's pick, some in the party found him too progressively left and friendly to labor. Truman was the more moderate choice. Convention imagines the wheeling and dealing which took place over two days in July, 1944.
Directed by Shannon Fillion, the convention stage is used for speeches but the guts of this play is the action which occurs everywhere, often simultaneously as written. There are delegates sitting among the audience chanting "we want Wallace, the same old team." Discussions, arguments and gossip ensues. There are many sidebars happening in the aisles and up in the balcony. Pick one or two and eavesdrop. The energy and general mayhem is fun, especially for political junkies.
There are a lot of delegates and who's who becomes a little hard to follow. The main players in this drama do emerge. Senator Samuel D. Jackson worked very hard to secure Truman's nomination. He later said that he wanted his tombstone inscribed with the words, "Here lies the man who stopped Henry Wallace from becoming President of the United States."
Jackson is portrayed by Kathleen Littlefield in a confidently assured performance. The casting in this show is gender and racially neutral. That seems to work fine overall. Campiness does creep in occasionally and it seems intentional. The relatively young cast, however, struggles slightly to add gravitas to these delegates and convention organizers so the humor is close to sitcom laughs. The best performances were strongly defined, appropriately serious in tone while also being amusing. McLean Peterson's Mayor Kelly, Michael Pantozzi's Philip Murray (from the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and Sue Kim as Dorothy Vrendenburgh, the Secretary of the DNC, were especially memorable.
Billed as an immersive political comedy, the production pivots between semi-serious reenactment and slyly subversive farce. The build up in Act I to the final speech in support of Wallace is a peak. The show is never less than interesting and fascinating to follow. If you enjoy bribes, secret meetings, spying, extramarital affairs, conniving and pettiness, there is much to gawk at during this political soap opera spoof.
The beginning of Act II takes a turn to a lighter, jokier comedic style which was less successful. The Hot Dog Man (a very funny J.G. Grouzard) is front and center barking about his merchandise. Bess Truman is portrayed by Daniel John Serpati in drag. He's certainly funny but a tad out of place. The women playing men don't camp up the drag nearly as big (or perhaps he was just the boldest impersonation).
There are some odd diversions along the way where these characters ponder what love is or toss up-to-date commentary into the mix. "Stop it. You're like birds tweeting... use your mind." I did get a kick out of many of the witty asides in the script when they were politically insightful and sharply delivered. A favorite: "people love bullshit because people are simple."
I sat in the Iowa section. Many audience members were fanning themselves like you might see in a crowded, overheated convention hall. It added to the realism but the fans served another purpose. The inside of the Irondale Center is quite warm. I advise you to dress appropriately.
Last week I saw Ms. Blakk For President at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre about the 1992 New York Democratic Convention. Three days later I attended this Convention in NYC based on the 1944 Chicago Democratic Convention. Kismet? America's politics may appear more theatrical today than ever before. It's a welcome time to let inspiring artists highlight some of the highs and lows of the democratic process. We need to laugh at it sometimes to remain sane.
Convention can be recommended for its immersive experience and Shannon Fillion's you-are-there direction. Her massive cast has been orchestrated to make you feel like you are on the floor in the middle of the action. Although clearly not intended, it would be interesting to see this same piece staged more traditionally with a gang of grandstanding older, white men. Danny Rocco's ambitious dramedy might then acquire a darker edge more pointedly skewering the political games played in the real world.