According to the perspective put forth by playwright Colin Speer Crowley, this play could well be titled “The Reluctant President.”
It takes place in a Chicago hotel room during the Republican National Convention of June 1920. At first, the possibility that Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding (David Hunt Stafford) will be the party’s nominee for president seems remote. But his handler, political operative Harry M. Daugherty (John Combs), has concocted a devious scheme whereby the two front-runners are certain to be deadlocked, and the delegates backing one of them have actually been sewn up to switch to Harding on a late ballot.
As portrayed here, Harding, a renowned ladies’ man, doesn’t really want to be president. He would prefer to chuck it all and live with his current mistress, Nan Britton (Sarah Walker), who has given birth to his child. But Daugherty manipulates him into acquiescing.
The play is a mildly interesting look at political machinations (made by men in smoke-filled rooms), but as drama, the production only occasionally sparkles. The script is labored, and a heaviness overhangs the action. The very able director, Jules Aaron, keeps the evening flowing, but even he can’t completely overcome the story’s limitations.
Part of the problem is that, as drawn here, Harding is not a particularly compelling figure and is less interesting than most of the other characters. He is presented as a weak, vacillating, easily controlled, even henpecked, man, without any strengths. Stafford, a talented, versatile actor, makes the most of the material he’s given, but is afforded little opportunity to display the appeal and charm that Harding was noted for.
Also, while most of the events in the play are historically accurate, and the main characters actually existed, several of the motivations impugned to them are less supportable. For instance, was Harding really such a wavering nominee? Did his wife Florence (Roslyn Cohn) really wish that her husband not become President because she feared the death that a clairvoyant foretold for him?
As Florence, a historically active and forward-thinking First Lady, Cohn gives one of the production’s most enlivened performances. At first, she is so expertly bitchy, critical and sarcastic that she arouses delicious hostility. But she becomes much more sympathetic when it’s later revealed how well she understands her husband and how much she needs and loves him. Combs plays his part equally well, projecting every inch the blustery man of action and limited self-reflection. The actor never falters in his drive and cunning.
Walker’s Nan is an effervescent flapper type. She is totally convincing as a hero-worshipper who turns out to want things just the way they are, preferring to become the mistress of a United States president rather than spending her life with an ordinary citizen.
Unfortunately, Kevin Dulude is miscast as a crafty newspaper editor. He has an impish quality that doesn’t suit the character of a savvy journalist. He is much more successful in his other role, that of a French waiter. And Roger K. Weiss needs to acquire a more professionally authoritative tone as a radio announcer conjured in Harding’s imagination, predicting future events that actually come true.
The set is a beautifully appointed interior (Jeff G. Rack) which creates just the right ambiance. Equally praiseworthy are Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s theatrically stimulating sound and Brandon Baruch’s expert lighting.
Warren Harding’s administration was beset by political scandals, most notably the Teapot Dome affair in which a cabinet official received a bribe in return for awarding oil leases at low rates without competitive bidding. Given the current political climate, the skullduggery depicted in the play just goes to show that, the more things change, the more they remain the same.