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NO AMERICAN PRESIDENT ever faced as awesome a task as Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04 did during his 13 years in office. He entered the White House with the country writhing in the throes of a devastating economic depression and left it with the world emerging from global warfare of unprecedented scale. Although historical critics may reproach him for some of his methods and motives, few find fault with the quality of his leadership during those difficult years. Like other great presidents, Roosevelt rose to the challenge of overwhelming events and refused to be overwhelmed by them. The play FDR chronicles those events, but unfortunately it does not fare as well as the man himself did.
Events overwhelm the play, breaking its continuity and interfering with its principle missions, the intimate portrayal of a complex and intriguing political personality. Adopting the overused one-man show approach, playwright Dore Schary pays too much attention to minor historical incidents during the Roosevelt administration. He fails to provide the character with the breathing space so essential for success in what has become a tired and formulaic format. As Roosevelt discusses his presidential years, he shifts abruptly from event to event, changing subjects and moving through time too quickly. As a result, the play fails to fully achieve the dramatic, and at times comedic, potential of its material.
The potential undoubtedly is there. Roosevelt's presidency hardly lacked the political conflict and turmoil that gives birth to powerful historical drama. His glib tongue seldom strained to reduce the quirks of everyday life to irresistibly quotable witticisms or the sentiments of his countrymen to stirring rhetoric. Schary's script, however, never allows enough room for the full power of Roosevelt's formidable personality, as portrayed by the ubiquitous Robert Vaughn, to reveal itself. Before a scene can build sufficient dramtic tension, an unsatisfying and petty denouement intrudes. Before the audience can become relaxed with Roosevelt's humorous side, the script plunges both character and crowd into the tedium of yet another event. In an effort to include as many "events" from Roosevelt's life as possible, every incident is shortchanged and treated hastily. A choppy, poorly paced production that lacks a coherent theme results.
While Schary might have put more thought and imagination into the script, one might question whether Roosevelt's life and personality are best adapted to the solo format. The theater has hosted a plethora of such fare in the past decade and the most successful examples of the genre are usually those plays which focus on more introverted types than FDR. An Emily Dickinson who seldom leaves the confines of her New England home, or a Mark Twain who addresses most of his scathing satire to an anonymous audience, are far less confined by the formidable constraints of the genre than Roosevelt, the quintessential social animal. Because Roosevelt always directs his thoughts and words toward another person or group, the absence of other characters seriously impairs the play's progress.
If the success of theater requires an imaginitive leap, the suspension of belief, then the one-man show requires even more difficult acrobatics, an imaginative somersault. In the case of FDR's life, one regrets having to perform such tricks. One would much rather watch a Yalta scene in which the roles of Stalin and Churchill are played alongside Vaughn's Roosevelt than imagine their presence while staring at two empty chairs.
Instead of participating in exciting dialogue in tense situations, Vaughn must compensate for the absence of a supporting cast by weaving everything they would say into his own speech. As if the brevity of most scenes were not annoying enough, this constant need to fill an obvious vacuum proves unbearably frustrating.
ATTIMES THE VACCUUM DISAPPEARS and the format works effectively, particularly when Roosevelt tell of his visit to his dying friend and political adviser Louis Howe. No other actor is necessary for the audience to grasp the deep loss felt by the president upon his friend's death.
The play's most moving scene occurs at the very outset. A wheelchair-ridden Roosevelt, paralyzed by polio in 1921, painfully attempts to stand erect without supports of any kind. Grimacing in agony, Roosevelt hesitantly rises from the chair, straightens his posture, and...does it. The significance of the accomplishment does not go unnoticed. Confident of his ability to stand firmly and address an audience, Roosevelt agrees to enter the 1928 New York gubernatorial race, embarking on a path that would lead to the White House four years later.
Unfortunately, such scenes come in spurts and are essentially Vaughn's personal triumph. In many ways, the one-time Man from UNCLE's talents save the show. His excellent performance captures the essence of Roosevelt's personality, the charismatic aura that captivated the hearts of millions of voters, the oratorical wizardry that soothed the fears of millions of unemployed workers, and the self-assured jocundity that enlivened the days of the few who knew him well. Still, Vaughn cannot escape the script's fatal flaws, only make them less noticeable.
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