Wednesday, November 19, 2008

La Guardia in the Eye of the Beholder

How did Mayor Bloomberg celebrate his inevitable victory overturning the term-limit measure New Yorkers twice approved at the ballot box? Instead of going to Disneyland, he went to Tony Lo Bianco’s one-man show La Guardia. The whole three-termer thing must have appealed to him. For the record, LaGuardia demurred on a fourth term, cautioning mayors tend to get “bossy.” One can see what he meant. You can also see Mayor La Guardia, as personified by Lo Bianco, at the Dicapo Opera Theatre, quite Off-Broadway on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Eastside.

Distilled from Lo Bianco’s previous one-man productions down to a manageable hour and a half, performed without intermission, La Guardia is a respectful treatment of the progressive Republican icon. The year is ostensibly 1945 and La Guardia is packing up his office on his last day as Mayor, a process nicely suited to prompting reminiscences. Essentially, we hear the highlights of La Guardia’s public career, primarily his terms in Congress, service in WWI, and of course his years in Gracie Manor.

Lo Bianco did his research, acknowledging La Guardia’s little known Jewish heritage. As revealed in Hava Volterra’s documentary Tree of Life, he was distantly related to her Jewish Italian Volterra family-line that included Luigi Luzzatti, the first Jewish Prime Minister ever elected in Europe, and the mystical kabbalist Ramhal (none of which is in the play). Explaining the social pecking-order of turn of the century New York, Lo Bianco’s La Guardia tells the audience as both an Italian and a Jew, he started his career as a third-class citizen. Actually, he could have added Republican, making him a fourth-class New Yorker. In truth, La Guardia shows a better than average understanding of New York’s strange political ins-and-outs. Particularly, on-target was a crack about the “Republican deadbeat district leaders and club loafers,” he had to endure during his early campaigns.

To his credit, Lo Bianco unequivocally portrays Tammany Hall as the corrupt Democrat machine it was. However, he chooses to emphasize La Guardia, the provider of social services and supporter of FDR, rather than La Guardia, the pro-war hawk and crusader against Democrat corruption. Yet, when he covered the WWII years, La Guardia’s words had a ringing resonance for today, at one point warning listeners of his radio broadcast, they can indeed criticize their government in a time of war, but should remember that our enemies are listening as well.

Lo Bianco clearly loves the Little Flower like a brother, but that does not always make for the best theater. We never hear La Guardia holding a grudge or speaking a word in anger against anyone, except the Corruptocrats of Tammany. One-person shows are inherently limited, but La Guardia feels particularly stagy at times. However, Lo Bianco is quite effective channeling La Guardia, getting a standing ovation from an audience that included many who probably remember the great Mayor personally. La Guardia is safe theater and a reasonably diverting history lesson. It runs at the Dicapo through Saturday the 22nd.