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STAGE REVIEW

The Last Hurrah

Not Much To It

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
ARTS EDITOR

Adapted and directed by Eric Simonson

Based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor

Set designed by James Wolk

With Michael Ball, Adam Caulfield, Edmond Genest, Ken Baltin, Paul Kerry, Larry Paulsen, Keith Perry, Baxter Harris, William Langan, Kari McGee and many others

At Huntington Theatre through November 21

More information at <http://www.bu.edu/huntington> or at (617) 266-0800

There’s fifteen minutes in the middle of The Last Hurrah which are downright enjoyable. These fifteen minutes are the intermission. The rest of the production, with the exception of a couple of amusing scenes and a gorgeous set, is torturous -- an inane exercise in overblown and weightless theatrics, which manages to combine the impersonal quality of bad professional theatre with downright amateurish writing, directing, and (with a few exceptions) acting.

The play is an adaptation of the famous 1956 Edwin O’Connor novel about the last election campaign of Frank Skeffington, the mayor of “a large Eastern seaboard metropolitan city.” The city is never named, but there are a plethora of clues (for example, the large Irish-American population) which leave no doubt that O’Connor described his home city, Boston, and that Skeffington is a stand-in for Boston’s notorious and charismatic mayor Michael Curley.

Curley was certainly a colorful figure, one of the first prominent Boston politicians of Irish descent, a garrulous populist, a crowd-pleasing orator, an unscrupulous inside dealer, and a convicted felon. He is probably the single person most responsible for the way Boston is today, having nearly bankrupted the city after lavishly spending money on parks, hospitals, and other municipal improvements.

Great character, don’t you agree? Unfortunately, very little of it gets into the play. Frank Skeffington of Hurrah (Michael Ball) is your favorite uncle: boisterous and loud, but not very complex. Ball gives a very good performance, far and above the best of the cast, and he manages to create a complete character, who doesn’t feel fake for a moment. Regrettably, Skeffington is not given much to do, mostly having to stand around; it’s nice to watch him be, but he almost never gets a chance to do.

Only in one scene is his political method demonstrated, when he essentially blackmails prominent local politician Norman Cass Sr. (Baxter Harris). This scene is a caricature -- but at least it’s amusing, and it shows some of mayor’s modus operandi.

The rest of The Last Hurrah shows him as a near saint: so squarely is he made to be a good guy and so much are his opponents made to be either conceitedly scheming or downright laughable that there’s almost no conflict in the play. It also makes the result of the election completely predictable after about a quarter of the way into the play.

In any case, the central character, despite being given pretty much nothing to do, is still by far the most interesting figure on the stage. Some other characters are merely broadly-drawn caricatures, including Norman Cass Jr. (William Langan), another mayoral candidate, Kevin McCluskey (also played by Langan in a rather broad but amusing fashion), lowdown newspaper editor Edgar Burbank (Larry Paulsen, as mannered as he was in last season’s The Mikado but, at least contrasted with other actors, not as irritating).

The rest of the characters are featureless props -- people with nary a thread of personality to mention. When twenty-two actors play what is advertised as “over 87 roles,” the impression is that of a vague faceless blur, with most characters having so little time on stage and so little to do that any attempts to display personality (not to mention such luxuries as character development) are in vain.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the nominal protagonist/narrator, Skeffington’s nephew Adam Caulfield (Kyle Fabel). Maybe this figure was necessary in the novel, working more or less as a blank space onto which the reader could project, but in the play his presence is entirely superfluous, as close to a total waste of stage space as possible. Caulfield doesn’t do a single thing; he’s on the stage most of the play, and Fabel is completely blank-faced for all two and a half hours.

The worst aspect of all is the play itself. Other than a few moderately funny caricatures, there’s nothing whatsoever to enjoy. The characters are lacking, the action is glacially paced, the conflicts are superfluous, and the dramatics are shallow. If I didn’t know that adapter/director Eric Simonson is a well-known playwright, I might have assumed I was watching a strictly amateurish play, from someone who has heard about the basic elements of drama (conflicts, character arcs, etc.), but has very little idea of either why or how to use them. The overall structure is a mess as well, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a less climactic closing line.

The only thing (other than Ball’s performance) worthy of attention is James Wolk’s amazing set, being both wondrous to look at and extremely versatile. By a simple change of lighting and a move of a small set piece, the setting changes from interior to exterior, from a poor neighborhood to a lush mansion, and so on.

I’m grateful for the set, because otherwise there’d be pretty much nothing to watch. With crowds of people on stage and a lot of motion but pretty much nothing happening, The Last Hurrah ends up being hopelessly boring.