As last weekend came and went, so did the Laguna Playhouse, special event, with Ed Asner starring as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in FDR, a solo performance, based upon the 1958 multi – Tony award winning play, Sunrise at Campobello by Dore Schary.
It was a “peer group” house for Mr. Asner, which, as I overheard while waiting for the curtain to open, was rumored to include at least one 97 year old woman who actually lived, and even worked in a Roosevelt campaign organization during the presidency. In other words, this was an audience, in the know, genuinely excited about the material and of course, Mr. Asner, who himself is considered a national treasure, high tempered, gravely voiced, hard hitting and all.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of sitting in on a public reading of a new play written essentially for and with Asner as the lead, along with one of my favorite actresses, a cast of other celebs and Los Angeles theatre up & comers. So I will say that my excitement and expectation was very high for FDR. Asner is a serious “shoo-in”.
Overall, there were no disappointments. If you are any sort of history buff it is entirely appealing on every level from players to events. And FDR as a play is witty, entertaining and warm. It attempts to intelligently elucidate a slightly prankster-ish, but formidible and astute portrait of our 32nd president, who realigned American politics and defined American liberalism for a great part of the 20th century.
But this production was long in the tooth, much more so than the actual historical content. And although I’m loathe to say it, as it started off well, it became harder to stay with for the length of the play.
Breaking the story down from a 10 character dialog to a one man presentation was a hurdle even for a tsunami talent like Asner who put in no small effort to keep the storyline on track wading through public speeches, phone calls, conversations on stage with invisible characters, elections and straight narration. What worked – worked; what didn’t created gaping holes, ultimately leaving Asner unsupported and having to fill the moments with out loud contemplative sighs, pauses and guffaws, until FDR was ready to burst on into the next subject. Only by the miracle of hard core experience, creativity, innate personal power and what came across as more self-direction than collaborative blocking was Asner able to keep it going…and keep it believable.
The audience of course, thoroughly enjoyed it. But then, 90% of the house consisted of men and women who actually lived generationally within inches in time from FDR’s four term presidency which grappled with, as a starter list: the Great Depression, New Deal politics, the creation of Social Security and World War II, to have better understood and/or continued to experience the direct repercussions of his policies for which he remained popular.
That being said, the success of FDR is in giving audiences an empathetic avenue to the personality and humanity about the president. As a fictionalized version based on evidence, we are invited into the private office of the White House. We become participants in his predilections to rough humor and sarcasm, imaginative and thoughtful governing, his distant yet admirable marriage to Eleanor, a pea sized insight into his relationship with his daughter, his embarrassment about having to rely on canes to stand because of his disability from Polio and his [alleged] rage at the mishandling of Pearl Harbor for which he was brutally scandalized by the press. It has been said and written that the president had prior knowledge about the imminent attack which took place before any formal declaration of war was made by Japan. In turn, FDR always maintained that he had given orders, that might have prevented the heavy losses sustained by getting men off the ground or out of port, but which were never implemented and that he had no knowledge of being disregarded until he received the phone call.
Inside all of the outward drama of FDR, we get a slightly more intimate look of Roosevelt, the human being, an unapologetic man’s man of his generation, praised by the people, cited for some of the most memorable quotes in history, often criticized by the media and yet ultimately lauded for successfully steering this country through some of its darkest periods.
As FDR, Asner puts in a good fight… “he (the president) would have loved that…”