Theater Review: FDR (with Ed Asner at The Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on October 23, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


William S. Burroughs said, “Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.”

Well, what a relief it is to see the venerable Pasadena Playhouse open for business again after a financial housecleaning. There are indeed angels in our midst that came to the rescue after the Playhouse closed on February 7 and went to U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The saddest part of the closure was that it came after a brilliant reinterpretation of the musical Camelot, which could not sell enough tickets during an economic downturn.

It comes as no surprise that the theater is reopening with a scaled-down, one-man show, namely FDR, starring Ed Asner. It is a relief to note that this handsome production plays well. Why a relief? First, the program lists no director and no designers, and (especially confounding) is that the playwright is Dore Schary, who never wrote a play named FDR — this show is merely based on Schary’s 1958 Sunrise at Campobello and very little of Sunrise ended up in this production! Second, it’s always a little frightening for this reviewer to see a one-person show, as they tend to be self-congratulatory, one-note, and inept in their dramatic construction.

Two years ago, I sat in almost the exact same seat at The Playhouse when Mimi Kennedy, as Ann Landers in The Lady with All the Answers, broke the fourth wall of her Chicago apartment and, shielding the stage lights with her hand, asked the audience if anyone out there had been married for 50 years or more. The audience sat mute, as if to say, ‘Is she talking to us?’ But she kept urging us on as I slinked so low in my chair that I nearly fell off. Finally, a couple raised their hand while Mimi led the applause. I can’t go on. Holy Dionysus, I get nauseous just thinking about it.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, Asner begins speaking to us at Curtain Up, but this device lets us know that the fourth wall will be dismantled at will and we will be the press corps, or interviewers, or a democratic convention. When a play starts out by telling us what to expect, it already receives high marks from me. In fact, when he monologues directly to the audience, it is more successful than when he has conversations with someone who is supposed to be entering his office. I mean, how many times does the poor actor have to say, “What?” or “Huh?” or “Yes, yes, yes” to invisible people on stage?

Another relief: You will find early on, except for the physical challenges brought about by polio, Asner is not attempting a Ralph Bellamy/Edward Herrmann-type impersonation of the eminent President. Yes, he puffs on the famous FDR cigarette holder and places the de rigueur pince-nez on his nose, but there is no New England, “Pepperidge Fahm remembahs” type of accent. At first, you may feel slighted, but the relief is that Asner truly embodies the spirit of a great man who led the country in a turbulent time.

More relief occurred after it was announced that the play runs one hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission. Surprisingly, the time really flew by. The subject and the subject matter are quite compelling, even though Frankie never discusses private matters like Eleanor and mistresses (whether his or Eleanor’s). Indeed, the uncanny parallel between his country in economic crisis and war and ours is simply breathtaking — a wistful and inspiring reminder that great leaders can pull us out of mind-numbing challenges if we let them. Just try to not feel it in your bones when FDR refers to financial systems, cost-cutting measures, and implementation of government-sponsored programs.

Yes, FDR satisfies because it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is: one of America’s best-loved Presidents reflecting on his days in office, from governorship through WWII, by a powerful actor in a beautiful theatre. This is not to suggest that FDR will rock your world, but it certainly is intriguing, and you will be pleased.

If you are one of those people who wanted to make a contribution to the Pasadena Playhouse, why not just see a play instead? There are plenty of outlets around that sell half-price tickets, too. What do you think the Playhouse needs: a house that is one-third full of full-price tickets or a full house with half-price tickets?

Do you want relief from the worries over our troubles with war, the economy, and the arts? My personal relief came from the Pasadena Playhouse, Ed Asner and FDR. Turn off the electronics and get your butt into the theater. Stop complaining and stop being so afraid. But that’s not me talking. It is what Franky would have told you to do.

photos courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
Wed-Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 7, 2010
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Playhouse

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