May 17, 2008

"The Bully Pulpit" Wins My Vote

The man sitting behind me at a recent performance of The Bully Pulpit, the new one-man show about Theodore Roosevelt was having second thoughts about the show even before it started. “It’s two acts,” he grumbled to his wife. “I thought there was only one guy in it. How much he could have to say?” His wife tried to reassure him. “Well,” she said. “Teddy Roosevelt was a very interesting man.”

Indeed he was. And The Bully Pulpit, written and performed by Michael O. Smith, is a thorough and thoroughly entertaining look at the life of the nation’s 26th president. The play is set in 1918 on Roosevelt’s 60th birthday and treats the audience as though it were well wishers who had come to celebrate the occasion and listen to the former president, out of office for 10 years by then, reminisce about his past.

The Bully Pulpit bears more than a passing resemblance to Thurgood, the one-man show that pretends to be a lecture the elderly civil rights pioneer and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is giving about his life. Both Marshall and Roosevelt are clearly deserving subjects but, except for some mild jibes at the current administration, neither show does much with their admirable stories. It’s up to the actors playing these towering figures to give them heart. In this, both shows have been blessed. Laurence Fishburne got a Tony nomination this past week for his masterful portrayal of Marshall. And now Smith, a dead ringer for Roosevelt, is just as good.

A veteran actor who has earned his living in touring companies and on TV shows, including as the police chief on the Burt Reynolds series “B.L. Stryker,” Smith began working on the show four years ago, premiering it at the Florida Playwrights Festival in 2004 and then taking it around the country before bringing it to the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row and he’s now as comfortable in the role as the trademark rimless glasses resting on TR's nose.
Almost seeming to channel Roosevelt’s charismatic ebullience, Smith banters with the audience, shows off some of TR’s athletic skills and creates an emotionally true character. You can literally feel why even his political foes found it hard to resist TR.

Smith is helped in large part by the wealth of material about the man. Roosevelt was born into one of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families and went on to become a reformist police commissioner of New York City, governor of the state, leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, owner of a cattle ranch in the Dakotas, an author of histories of the Old West, the conservationist champion of the national parks system, a Progressive trust buster, and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for his efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War. He was also passionately devoted to his wife and children, an enthusiastic celebrant of masculine endeavors like boxing and hunting; and the originator of one of perhaps the greatest political aphorism of all times, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick."

I first became fascinated by TR a few years ago when I read Edmund Morris’ meticulously researched and beautifully written biographies, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” which traces his early life through the arrival of the news that William McKinley has been fatally shot and Roosevelt, as his vice president, must assume the presidency; and “Theodore Rex,”which covers his White House years. And so I already knew his story but I still enjoyed Smith's winning retelling of it. But you don't have to be a history buff to appreciate this show. About a half dozen high school kids were at the matinee I attended and they seemed to be having just as good a time.

Roosevelt was one of this country’s most dynamic presidents but perhaps because there’s no national holiday for him and his small memorial in Washington is hard to reach and his younger cousin Franklin had a much longer and comparatively more recent stay in the White House, TR has gotten lost in the shuffle.
Bully, a one-man show with James Whitmore, played just seven performances in the fall of 1977 and Teddy & Alice, a musical about the President and his headstrong eldest daughter that starred Len Cariou and Nancy Hume in the title roles, lasted just 77 performances a decade later in 1987. The Bully Pulpit, which is scheduled to run until June 29, deserves a longer term.


Esther said...

After being absolutely mesmerized by Laurence Fishburne in "Thurgood" my interest in seeing more one-person shows has definitely increased. I probably won't get to this, unfortunately, but it sounds like a good one.

rundangerously said...

great review! my wife and i went to see it last night and loved it. also posted review on my blog: