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Smooth Sail for a Rough Rider

THEATER Bully starring James Whitmore at the Shubert Theatre through March 26

By Steven Schorr

THE ONE-MAN SHOW, the individual tour de force, has become a major theatrical art form in recent years, and no performer has mastered the genre more completely than James Whitmore. Although Hal Holbrook displayed a keener sense of comic timing in his uproarious portrayal of Samuel Clemens in Mark Twain Tonight, and Julie Harris added a depth of psychological feeling to her Emily Dickinson that Whitmore falls just short of attaining, no one has demonstrated the versatile range and consistent excellence of Whitmore in this type of theater.

Along with Holbrook, Whitmore pioneered the concept with a flawless imitation of the ropetwirling political satirist Will Rogers, but he has since moved from delivering the finely honed barbs of the nation's greatest "ridiculer" of Presidents to actually portraying Presidents themselves. He snared an Oscar nomination for a representation of Harry S. Truman that made its way successfully from stage to screen to tube under the fiery title Give 'Em Hell, Harry.

Switching political parties, Whitmore has selected Theodore Roosevelt as the latest launching pad for his talents. The one obviously essential ingredient for success in "solo" theater is an interesting character, and T.R. certainly fills the bill. The old roughriding, jingoistic trustbuster provides exactly the right mixture of eccentricity and believability to captivate an audience from the moment he chaotically and humorously enters from the back of the theater to the time of his inspiring exit at the play's end.

Although the play's success hinged on Whitmore's forceful rendering of Roosevelt's intriguing personality, author Jerome Alden has tailored the script so as to maximize the assets of both actor and character. Essentially biography, the play weaves together the most important parts of Roosevelt's life, mixing reminiscence and flashback with action in the present and cleverly juxtaposing events to achieve the maximum dramatic effect.

Commencing in 1912, the play first depicts Roosevelt as a robust ex-President enjoying his semi-retirement at Sagamore Hill, the family estate in New York. His random reminiscences of hunting and politicking are interrupted by a visit from three old political allies (all invisible, of course), asking him to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination against his own handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. Taft has strayed from the "progressive" Rooseveltian principles he once propounded, stoking Teddy's competitive fires for one last, glorious battle. But the decision to abandon the comforts of private life and re-enter the "arena" does not come easily for Roosevelt, who resorts to a chronological review of his life's highlights that serves the purpose of the play far more than the needs of his deliberations.

Alden attempts to show the many struggles of T.R.'s life, illustrating the "bully" attitude that brought him success against the greatest adversities. This message, though hardly profound, becomes obscured by the sheer entertainment of the work. Rapid shifts from pathos to bathos allow the audience little opportunity to notice the underlying theme that unifies the play. Even a rather stirring finale fails to fully display the inner strength Roosevelt derived from his "bully" values, perhaps because those values seem somewhat outmoded and irrelevant today.

But the surface message, the "never-say-die" competitiveness that pulls Teddy through hard times and tough fights, literally assaults the audience. Alden litters the play with examples of Roosevelt's "bully-ness". A frail, asthmatic child painfully builds his body into the epitome of physical fitness and manages to excel athletically at, of all places, Harvard College (from which Roosevelt graduated in 1880, and which he describes in the play as teeming with "intensely languid" people). Stricken with grief at the age of 26 when both his mother and his first wife die on the same day, Roosevelt abandons a budding career in New York politics and heads to the Dakotas, but he finally grapples with his sorrow and returns to the East the following year. These two triumphs constitute the dramatic highlights of the first act, and Alden effectively intersperses them with marvelous anecdotes of Roosevelt's early career and hilarious scenes of a harried President Roosevelt trying to conduct affairs of state by telephone while "pillow-fighting" with his young sons (a scene where one cannot help but think of Jimmy and Amy in the Oval Office today).

The second act abandons the flashback except for a few isolated and effective moments, and it begins with Roosevelt on the campaign trail in 1912. The absence of random, stream-of-consciousness reminiscence as attempts to carry out present action in a one-character play seem almost inherently doomed to failure. Some "corny" lighting and musical effects only worsen the general lag in the first part of the act.

BUT THE PLAY revives strongly near the end, as a defeated Roosevelt watches the storm clouds of World War I gather in Europe. Here the jingoistic, "big-stick" aspect of Roosevelt's personality obscured through most of the show, becomes clear. Unable to sit quietly in his old age and act the part of an elder statesman, T.R. rounds up a volunteer regiment and offers to lead them into the fray, an offer promptly refused by President Wilson. Still, all four sons serve courageously, with the youngest, Quentin, flying for the air corps, and the blustery old roughrider shouts a rousing "bully" at the news of every medal they receive. The fervor of war incites stirring memories of the heroic charge up San Juan Hill. Undoubtedly the most moving scene of the play, T.R.'s moment of triumph is made more potent and more politically meaningful in the play, juxtaposed as it is against the crushing news of Quentin's death in combat.

Finally the old man realizes that war is not fun and games, that sometimes death is not in the rear ranks but at one's own doorstep, and he is brutally crushed.

But only for a moment. Phoenix that he is, T.R. rises from the trauma to deliver a stirring affirmation of life, and for all his faults manages to leave the audience, as he left the world, a little richer.

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