Without looking at the press release for Colin Speer Crowley’s play, Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room, I conjured up mental images of political comedy with over-fed men puffing on stogies while they harangue and scheme and plot ways to subvert the republic and line their pockets with filthy lucre. That is not the game plan for this play. No, it is rather a drama about the sadness of Warren Gamaliel Harding, a reluctant candidate for the 1920 Republican nomination for president. Set in a room in Chicago’s Congress Hotel on the night of June 11th, the action starts with a lively phone call received by Harding’s campaign manager, Harry M. Daugherty (energetic, flamboyant John W. Combs), who wheedles and finesses and connives to steer his candidate to win the nomination. Historically, there was a smoke-filled room, and, eventually, Harding was nominated on the tenth ballot.
Warren G. Harding (David Hunt Stafford in a somewhat subdued performance) was a sitting senator who wanted nothing more than to return to his native Ohio and live out his life with his young paramour, Nan Britton (smiling, winsome Sarah Walker) and the child they had conceived. There was of course a wife, Florence Kling Harding (Roslyn Cohn in an arch, vitriolic performance), who, because of an astrologer’s portentous reading, feared the future for both her husband and herself. Another politico who was in that legendary smoke-filled room, George Harvey (Kevin Dulude, who also takes on the role of the hotel’s French headwaiter), jousts with the campaign manager, pressuring him to get the job done.
The structure of the ninety-minute play calls for a series of lengthy, two-character scenes, between which a radio announcer (Roger K. Weiss) appears upstage revealed on a platform behind a semi-transparent wall. He delivers news of Harding’s progress through future time, while the characters remain in the time of the convention.
Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room is an obvious choice for out political times, but it does not spark the interest that one might expect. Warren G. Harding famously called for a return to “normalcy” after the horrors of the World War I and the plague of the Spanish influenza that infected 500 million people world wide. He was popular with the people, but lost historical standing after his death when such scandals as Tea Pot Dome and his relationship with Nan Britton came to light. In history he is regarded very lightly, if at all. It does, however, have some parallels to the current moment.