Reprinted from yesterday editions.
An Act II scene of Dore Schary's "FDR" illustrates the potential strength but habitual weakness of these one-character "plays" that presently assail us. Opening a four-week run Tuesday on the National stage, actor Robert Vaughn finally quickened the elusive spell in a segment about Pearl Harbor Day in the White House.
It is a scene of concentrated events and action and, for once, the subject did not shift after a minute or two. We were with FDR when he learned of the Japanese attack. We heard him instruct Secretary of State Cordell Hull to say nothing about it when, within a few moments, he would meet the official Japanese representatives. And the scene carried on into dictation to secretary Grace Tully of the next day's speech in which he would declare the day "a date that will live in infamy."
I didn't clock how long that segment ran but it is conspicuously the longest sustained scene in Schary's backward glances through the memories of FDR and it also is the one which comes closest to approximating "a play."
What "FDR" - and "Bully" and "Eleanor" and far too many of these solo efforts - lack is the ability or confidence to take a subject and really deal with it, to probe it, to explain why a matter was important, how important and what is now suggests.
No, in the effort to cover years, in this case from FDR's polio attack to his final departure for Warm Springs, the habit is to touch on this or that for 20 seconds, 40 seconds, a full minute or even two. Then it's off on another tangent. Some of this comes, I suspect, from the pervaisve television fear of losing the audience's interest, but some also comes from wanting to crowd in everything without boring those uninterested in a particular facet of character or of history.
Another trap in these well-intended offerings is to reach for the laughs deemed vital by such experts of solo speech as Dale Carnegie or Georgie Jessel. Fortunately for Schary and Vaughn, FDR had a healthy developed sense of humor and, like LBJ, he loved to tell anecdotes. These laughs come, for the most part, honestly enough and from character but one is conscious of their usage as laugh-getters or subject-changers.
Another gambit which gets wearing is the name dropping ploy. By Steve, Grace, Harry, Louis and Babs, Washington cave dwellers recognize Early, Tully, Hopkins, Howe and Eleanor. Then there are the more specific Cordell Hull. Gen. Marshall, Knox (later "Frank"), Samuel Rosenman, Westbrook Pegler, Summer Welles, Al Smith, Martin, Barton and Fish.
Under Jeff Bleckner's direction and within H. R. Poindexter's full-stage space, there is movement by Vaughn's wheelchair, with desks, tables and chairs clumping in atop a treadmill.
Watching Vaughn, I tried to think of the quality he lacked and came up with the name of an actor who couldn't stand FDR but could have played him well, Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore had a dynamic, quirky command. Tied to his chair as the immobilized Roosevelt, any actor would be constricted. Suddenly I realized Barrymore played his old doctor in a wheelchair.
Schary's avowed purpose is to vitalize a lengend for those born after his death in 1945. His own "Sunrise at Campobello" did capture the human being, but here, with a single actor, he is trying to explain the activist President and why those over 40 have their personal, even worshiping, memories.
Despite such details as showing us Roosevelt striving to stand, tapping his cigarette and the decidedly accurate signet ring, this is where Vaughn misses. He simply is not dynamic. Physically FDR had massive shoulders and a marvelous grace. I looked up at the box where FDR used to sit and regretted that for those who had been in FDR's presence, Vaugn did not have it.
In row F was Sen. Jennings Randolph, who took his House seat for West Virginia the day FDR was inaugurated. Near him was FDR aide Tommy "The Cook" Corcoran. Mentioned so often, the real Grace Tully was home with the prevalent flu.