Total Rating: ***
Warren G. Harding becomes a sympathetic figure in Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room, Colin Speer Crowley’s political drama, which is now running at Theatre 40, directed by Jules Aaron. Although history has always treated Harding cruelly, owing to the scandals that marred his term as 29th president, Crowley believes that he was essentially a decent, honest chap who was betrayed by his closest friends and confidants. Not only that, he didn’t even want to be president, preferring instead to run off with his mistress and put the world of politics far behind him.
Fifteen Men is set in June 1920, in a Chicago hotel room during the Republican convention. Harding (David Hunt Stafford), an Ohio Senator, seems to have little chance of winning his party’s nomination for president. But his big, boisterous campaign manager Harry M. Daugherty (John Combs) believes that they can pull off an upset. A shrewd, ruthless political operative, he knows how to guy the system and come out on top.
Opposing him is Florence Kling Harding (Roslyn Cohn), Harding’s cold, sharp-tongued wife. Although she and Harding are no longer close, she still cares about his well-being. A fanatical believer in astrology, she has read the stars and divined his future: “If you win the nomination and become president, you will die in office. That is your fate,” she tells him. “You cannot escape it.”
Daugherty scoffs at that and tells Harding to ignore her and focus on winning his party’s nomination, pointing to all the glorious things they will do for America should he become its next president. The reluctant Harding agrees to stay in the race, largely because his mistress Nan Britton (Sarah Walker) urges him to obey Daugherty. Smitten with love, she truly believes that Harding is a great man, someone who will leave his mark on history.
It’s at this point that playwright Crowley pulls a trick out of his sleeve. His play makes a sudden jump in time, via a radio broadcast in which the announcer (Roger K. Weiss) reports on Harding’s first two years in the White House. That’s when two of his appointees, Albert B. Fall (interior) and Harry Daugherty (attorney general) became involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. The disillusioned Harding was so shocked by their corrupt behavior that he considered resigning the presidency and returning to civilian life (where he’d play his beloved cornet and dally with his mistress). However, Nan once again begged him to stay the course and keep running the country. It was not long after that, August 2, 1923, that Harding died of a stroke in a San Francisco hotel.
Fifteen Men is certainly relevant to our times—once again widespread corruption is undermining our democracy—but the play is more of a character study than a political expose. Its portrait of Harding as a hapless, tragic figure is maybe too much of a whitewash—as a senator Harding opposed the League of Nations and voted for anti-strike legislation—but Crowley does succeed in making us feel sorry for this flawed, not-too-bright human being. Fifteen Men is skillfully acted (the cast also includes Kevin Dulude doubling as a newspaper publisher and a hotel waiter). It is also crisply directed by Jules Aaron…and looks historically accurate, thanks to Jeff G. Rack’s sumptuous, detailed set.