by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"Trying," An Intelligent Work
by Joanna McClelland Glass
Starring Fritz Weaver
The Promenade Theatre
West 77th Street and Broadway
Opened October 13,2004
Reviewed October 15,2004 by Margaret Croyden

Fritz Weaver in the play "Trying" is a remarkable actor. On the stage for over two and a half hours, never missing a beat, articulating perfectly, and thoroughly convincing, Weaver gives one the most intelligent and insightful portrayals that must be seen. He depicts the 82 year old Attorney General Francis Biddle under Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, who also represented America at the Nuremberg trials. Weaver must convince us that he is a highly intellectual, powerful patrician who, in his heyday, was sure of his prowess, but in the last years of his life, had deteriorated into a complaining, cantankerous crank. A heavy assignment, to be sure. On the one hand, the play is about aging and how it feels to lose one's power and place in the world but also one's physical prowess without the actor projecting an air of self-pity. Weaver accomplishes this successfully: he captures every angle of old age--the walk, the talk, the voice, the look, the act of sitting, or getting up, or lying down. Especially the existential anger at the inevitable blows suffered by aging. Truly a remarkably detailed portrait.

The story line is simple. Biddle's wife has recommended a new secretary, since his irksome disposition has alienated all previous ones. And no wonder. He is rigid, argumentative, and ill tempered. A young Canadian woman about 25 (The author actually did work for Attorney General Biddle) applies for the job, gets it and gets the grouchy old man with it. But in the course of the play, she tames him, wins him, and saves him. By her steely, quietly clever attitude, she helps him overcome his inner and outer chaos, and, in the process, the man's politics and understandable contradictions are subtlety revealed.

The second aspect of the play tells us more about his past and his real accomplishments. Francis Biddle was born into a well connected aristocratic Republican family. Later in life he switched his politics, became a Democrat, and chairman of Americans for Democratic Action as well as advisor to the American Civil Rights Union. A firm critic of the McCarthy hearings, he loudly condemned the Senator and the manner in which those hearings were conducted, and in one of his books, Biddle argued against guilt by association. In general, he clearly opposed the House UN-American Activities Committee, though his stance was not entirely popular with his "crowd." For his truthfulness, he was accused of being a traitor to his class.

Although the playwright Joanna McClelland Glass does not harp unduly on Biddle's politics, one gets the general idea that beneath all the man's irritation, he is a humanist, capable of tender feelings, or at least his realization (however belated) that people are not put on earth to satisfy his whims, his orders, and his complaints. In the end, despite his continual irascibility, he is, strangely enough, likeable. The playwright has given him the wittiest lines in the play, so that his harsher side is softened and his decline into old age is recognizable and indeed sympathetic. Plainly, it is no fun getting old.

So Fritz Weaver succeeds in capturing the role very well. And so does his foil, Kati Brazda as the secretary, who also has a difficult acting task. She has no showy knock-our scenes; the character she plays needs to be subdued, plain spoken, and subtle in manipulating her boss. And this is not easy for the actor precisely because the role is so low key. But that's just the point. Ms. Brazda is beautifully convincing on stage without big scenes and artificial histrionics.

Sandy Shinner, who also directed the sold-out production in Chicago at the Victory Gardens Theater, moves the play along quickly, although it could use a cut or two. Still it has started the season off on the right foot. Don't miss this production of "Trying." You will experience some fine acting and get a whiff of history as well. And it will remind you that the theater, when it produces serious plays with accomplished actors, can be still be a positive force in a culture that is seriously undermining serious art. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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