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The Last Hurrah Wins No Cheers

If a play takes ten years and three writers to make it to the stage, you can bet that it shouldn't have made it there at all. But such ominous artistic omens didn't prevent Producing Director Peter Altman of the Huntington Theatre Company from adapting Nobel-prize winning author Edwin O'Connor's 1956 novel, The Last Hurrah, into a theatrical event. Speckled with scheming politicos, snooty aristocrats and down-to-earth Irish-American folk, O'Connor's novel, a sweeping panorama of '50s Boston political scene, seemed a perfect recipe for dramatic success, right? Wrong.

In his zeal to promote Boston-themed plays, Altman thought he found an easy answer in the colorful Last Hurrah, the notorious parody of four-time Boston mayor James Michael Curley's last-ditch bid for re-election. What he got, however, was an unreasonably large and unmanageable cast of characters, many of whom are demoted to ornamental, cardboard cut-out status in the three-hour world of the theatre. There's Amos Force (Keith Perry), the conservative Yankee who will do whatever it takes to see the Irish mayor lose; Francis Jr. (John P. Arnold), the mayor's playboy, finger-snapping son; obsequious, bumbling Ditto (Paul Kerry), the mayor's would-be right-hand man, and so on, and so on. Though there is some fine acting in the mix, none of these characters is on stage long enough to provide more than a suggestion of local color. Indeed, since these minor players never develop beyond mere "snapshots," one wonders if The Last Hurrah might have been better realized as a Broadway musical, Ragtime style.

At the center of the show, of course, is the mayoral candidate himself, Frank Skeffington, impressively brought to life by theatrical veteran Michael Ball. In his dignified portrayal of the aging political lion, Ball combines a shrewd mind with a tender heart to gain the audience's sympathy, achieving just the right balance of bravado and fragility. Alienated from his son and his own inner-life, Skeffington's whole identity lies within his political campaign--"the greatest show on Earth!"--so when he loses the election (trust me, I'm not giving anything away), he becomes physically and emotionally crippled. Certainly, the show achieves its moments of poignancy as we see the once-raging beast confined to a hospital bed, longing for the good old days before Roosevelt arrived with so much bureaucratic red tape. However, this nostalgia soon degenerates into cheap sentimentalism when we hear, in the play's final lines, "That Skeffington was a great guy. Yeah (thoughtful pause), a great guy."

Oscillating between razor-sharp and nauseatingly trite (see above), director Eric Simonson's adapted script is too inconsistent to be praised. Besides containing about twelve too many characters (with not an interesting female role in the bunch), the script lacks the moral ambiguity that would have made The Last Hurrah a more intellectually engaging production. The press material for the play asks the seminal question "Is Skeffington a compassionate champion of the poor, an unscrupulous back-room deal maker, or both?" and it is clear early on in one's evening that the answer will not be hard to figure out. Yes, indeed, professional politicians need to step on a few hands and cut a few corners in the name of the greater good (even if that means campaigning at the wake of a deceased friend), and yes, indeed, even virtuous people have a bit of vice in them. But if you're kind to your friends, then what does it matter? This is about as deeply as the play probes these potentially interesting moral issues, and such perfunctory treatment leaves the viewer vaguely dissatisfied, if not bored.

Though filled with energy and period piece spirit, The Last Hurrah fails to reveal a deeper meaning beneath its entertaining surface. It's fun to go along for the ride, but at the end of this political campaign, one can't help but ask himself, "Why?"

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