Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Cameron's review of Breaking the Waves
Although much of the action takes place in the 1960s and '70s, the issues of police violence, racial conflict, and political power raised by author Bruce Graham's newest play could not be more timely. When should violence be used to keep the peace? How can a city divided by fear and hatred move forward? What happens when a person used to unchecked power comes up against the scrutiny of the press and the limitations of public office? Rizzo examines the life of the infamous Philadelphia mayor and the story of his great city in all its contradictions and complexity. For anyone interested in the political process or modern history of Philadelphia this one is a must-see.
The play begins in 1991 with Frank Rizzo attempting to win the Republican nomination for a third term as mayor, ten years after the end of his previous term. The play moves through time to cover Rizzo's early career, rise to political power and time as mayor. Rizzo maintains a journalistic style throughout and, rather than seeing events unfold, we usually hear about them second hand. Some characters speak to a reporter or address the audience directly, images of headlines and photographs flash across the back of the stage, and the big man himself converses with his enemies and friends. The audience is able to hear the story from a variety of viewpoints and it moves along at a good pace, though the production might be even more exciting if some of the narrative were replaced with action.
Scott Greer takes on the role of beat cop turned police commissioner turned mayor of Philadelphia so effectively it is easy to forget that he is not the real McCoy. Greer's accent, attitude and gestures are all on point, but it is his presence that brings Frank Rizzo to life with riveting intensity. Even while standing in a child's bedroom in a small South Philadelphia apartment, Greer has the gravitas of a man who expects his instructions to be followed and is ready to bash in some heads if they are not. He is a fearsome protector and remorseless enemy. Joe Canuso directs Greer in a performance that makes it easy to understand why Rizzo came to be such a divisive figure.
Rizzo is destined to become a Philadelphia favorite, but there is still room for improvement. None of the other characters are fleshed out to the same extent as the complicated and conflicted Frank Rizzo. With only one-dimensional characters for our protagonist to work against it is hard to build a sense of drama. There is also an odd lack of grittiness. There are references to police violence, but we never see a raised baton or injured protestor. The always irreverent Rizzo tells ethnic jokes, but his humor always stops short of anything that might be really offensive. There are plenty of obvious dog whistles and unmistakable references to racially divided Philadelphia neighborhoods, but explicit racist remarks are meticulously avoided. In other words, the play protects its audience from anything that might be really disgusting or uncomfortable. If the goal is to take a hard honest look at the racial tension and conflict, police brutality, and political power, then some discomfort is likely unavoidable and possibly advisable.
Theatre Exile's Rizzo runs through Sunday, October 23rd, 2016, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146. For tickets go to PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org or contact the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420.