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Rizzo — Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House

rizzo - interiorFrank Rizzo is such an indelible figure, 24 years is not enough time to erase his image or the force of his personality from the people who followed his exploits as cop, police commissioner, and mayor of Philadelphia.

Capturing all Frank Rizzo was, or even the essence of what he was, in a stage production is a gargantuan effort. You have to contain a larger-than-life man in a finite space. You have to pierce beyond the surface and get to the inner workings of someone who had such a vivid exterior, it rarely occurred to look beneath it. You have to measure the pros and cons of this polarizing figure and show why Rizzo was so equally idolized and despised or, sometimes, liked as a person but loathed for his actions.

Mr. Rizzo’s image still graces the courtyard of the Municipal Services Building, he is seen in various murals throughout the city, he will probably outlast even Ed Rendell as the most memorable mayor of recent times, yet a good deal of his reputation is tainted because of his behavior towards emerging gay and black communities (and even quiet gay and black areas where people minded the law and their business).

This, as I noted, is a difficult figure to present in a theater. Especially when the play is an overview of a life and career, as opposed to focusing on one dramatic moment that illustrates both.

Bruce Graham’s “Rizzo,” based on a book by Sal Paolantonio, who covered Philadelphia City Hall and Rizzo before taking over the Eagles beat that led him to his current place on ESPN, is a taut, entertaining piece. You follow it avidly and admire Graham’s faultless ear for speech patterns and ability to give characters smart one-liners, a trait that’s especially important in a play about Frank Rizzo, the Yogi Berra among politicians, who provided more than a few good quotes of his own. Graham knows Philadelphia patois and can score with jokes aimed at Rizzo as much as the salvoes delivered by him. You also marvel, as usual, at the tremendous talent of Scott Greer, who has the unenviable task of portraying someone that is too big, vital, and engrained to forget. Greer has made a habit of playing “big ones” this year, and “Rizzo” makes a fitting triumvirate with the Jackie Gleason alter ego in “To the Moon” and the gluttonous wise man in “The Whale.” (Greer showed he can also play a meeker man in another Graham play, “Stella & Lou.”)

“Rizzo” entertains constantly. Even when it rehashes incidents that are familiar, you enjoy reliving them as history rather than considering them ‘old hat.’ Graham and Greer also work hard to keep matters interesting while “Rizzo” director Joe Canuso keeps the energy high and consistent. “Rizzo” breezes by, and you feel satisfied, but you also feel more educated than enlightened. History plays out smoothly but one thing is missing. Size. Greer registers strongly as Rizzo, but he doesn’t pop off the page as Rizzo did even in newspaper photos. He doesn’t loom. He keeps his magntiude on the stage when it needs more to soar out into the house and make its iconic mark the way Frank Rizzo never failed to do. I don’t think Greer is incapable of conveying the enormity of Rizzo. In fact, I am certain he is. Graham’s play, though starting quietly with Rizzo visiting a South Philadelphia home to negotiate with a police officer whose testimony he needs to absolve him of his most recent political dilemma, is generally a succession of high points that would force the character of Frank Rizzo to be too big too often if Greer and Canuso didn’t build in levels of intensity or keep Rizzo to some human scale. I understand the reason for underplaying Rizzo a bit, diluting him her to give him room to roar there, but by doing so, “Rizzo” sacrifices some of the potency its lead character always mustered. Greer and the play give a sense of the man at “Rizzo’s” core but at the expense of a sense of the significance or the depth of a man who accomplished so much and did most of it on his own terms.

I have to admit to a handicap in reviewing “Rizzo.” Although I did not cover City Hall or Rizzo per se, I started my journalism career in the Rizzo era. He was the mayor and Ed Rendell the district attorney when I got by first byline in a city daily. I have met and had conversations with almost every character in the play, Paolantonio only by telephone when he covered the Eagles and I confirmed television game times, and almost whooped out loud at the hairdo and dress given to Shelley Yanoff, who I remember as being much more styled and stylish in her Rizzo recall years than she is depicted. For a couple of years, when Frank Rizzo had a talk show on WCAU radio, and I worked for WCAU-TV, we by coincidence walked out to the parking lot at the same time most nights. Frank even commented once, “Hey, Neal Zoren, are stalking me on this parking lot?” “Yes, sir,” I answered, “I want to make sure I have protection going to my car.” My colleague, Philip Silverstone often tells me, “You know too much,” and I worry that how much I know and experienced affects my reaction to Graham’s play. I was hardly a Rizzo insider, and at best a reporter observing from a different desk, but I can tell you how Rizzo stood, right hand on the wall looking straight forward, left hand by his side, when he went to the bathroom, and for a while, I talked to the man almost every day (in the “CAU parking lot or corridor, not in the gents’).

The point is I was impressed and entertained by “Rizzo” but never engrossed by it or mesmerized by Rizzo’s presence. Graham found some of the inner man by stressing Rizzo’s sensitivity to disagreement, disapproval, and criticism, as well as to public opinion, which he craved most of all. He also appreciates Rizzo’s sense of humor and quick way with words and made sure the mayor had enough sharp lines, quoted and invented. But “Rizzo” stayed, for me, at a matter-of-fact level. Details like Rizzo’s thin skin behind the scenes, his relationship with his father, his putting law and order first, and his dedication to Philadelphia come through, but they are almost part of a check list of traits, good and bad, that have to be covered more than dramatic fodder. Graham tries to give “Rizzo” more texture by putting in a framework that regularly goes back to that South Philly cop’s home at a place of respite, but he has so much documentary material to include, the rhythm is often one of “and then I intimidated,” “and then I arrested,” or “and then I made the faux pas” instead of an insightful look at a complex man. Also, “Rizzo” rarely lets a scene take place at face value for the audience to judge on its own. There’s usually some commentary, from Damon Bonetti playing Paolantonio, reaction from a Rizzo staffer, such as Paul L. Nolan as Marty Weinberg, that supplies a point of view. Political incidents dominate in broad strokes, although Graham, who had to be overwhelmed at fitting Rizzo’s career into a play, makes attempts to take us behind the scenes and give some background. In general, Rizzo does not come out a hero. There’s a lot of reason for that, some based in the tactics he used or the laws he flouted, but that outcome, that Rizzo has more negatives than positives, is based on Graham’s adapting of Paolantonio. It suits current thinking. I’d like to see what Graham would do if he had carte blanche to depict Rizzo from as seen from several sources, including his own memory, and I’d prefer more scenes that stand on their own, without side commentary, for the audience to judge.

Even without that objectivity, there was plenty to savor. “Rizzo” depicts a man who is an instinctive politician, checking polls and knowing how to stand his ground, but who is also the ultimate maverick, the man who takes the course most clearly wants whatever the fallout. He’s a man who understands his constituents, especially the ones who hail, as he does, from the row houses of South Philadelphia and who want the streets to be safe and free from even the remote threat of predatory crime. He also enough of an individualist to buck his party’s nominee, George McGovern, to back the Republican, Richard Nixon, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election.

All of Rizzo finds it way to the Theatre Exile stage, but it is presented in a “Dragnet” here’s-the-facts way with Weinberg or Paolantonio, or other operatives like former Democrat city chairman Pete Camiel, livid over Rizzo’s endorsement of Nixon, as was Shelley Yanoff, McGovern’s local campaign manager, providing point of view after the fact. I often thought I was watching a review of a man’s life rather than seeing a vibrant character living it.

Not that Scott Greer isn’t vibrant. He finds the stature and discipline of Rizzo. He conveys the teasing nature of Rizzo’s wit and the wounds his ego endures when people disdain his decisions or policies. He gets to the fiber of Rizzo and gives a strong portrayal. The dilemma is a quarter of a century is not enough to erode the huge presence of Frank Rizzo. Like him or hate him, there was magnitude in everything he did. Good as Greer is, that’s hard to harness and radiate.

Greer loomed big, and not only because of his own ample size. He knew to convey grandeur. But to the extent Frank Rizzo could just by appearing.

NealBoxWhat Rizzo did or didn’t do is secondary to his overarching image. You can disparage his handling of the Bicentennial, chortle a little about his ambitions for the Gallery, feel continuing umbrage at his raiding of gay bars or making black protesters strip to their undershorts. You can remember incidents Graham and Paolantonio don’t address, such as the Lillian Reis arrest or turning Chestnut Street into a pedestrian mall, a move from which it’s never recovered, but all of that pales next to the colossus that was Frank Rizzo.

Greer puts that person on stage but leans more towards a more real figure who reacts to matters like a man and not a titan. I kept waiting to care or feel some recalled anger or elation as I watched the play, but my emotions stayed on an even keel. The most fun came from the jokes, quotes, and comebacks in the dialogue. I may be gay, but I find and have always found Rizzo’s “I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” an hilarious line. I also enjoy some of the retorts Graham gave to the characters around Rizzo.

Dramatically, no incident or scene stands out, although some of the graphics Canuso culled from news files and John Hoey projected on the set caused some reaction, especially the one of Black Panthers standing with their hands against a brick wall while wearing only their Jockey shorts,

Though no scene dominates, they all register. Each sequence of “Rizzo” tells its own story, so you see the scope of Rizzo’s career. This is good for chronicling a major portion of Philadelphia’s late 29th century history, but it keeps things on a generally superficial level. Graham hints at psychological insight by showing Rizzo’s relationship with his father, Ralph, also a Philadelphia police officer, at one juncture under Frank’s command, but these scenes provide more information than impact. The same goes for Rizzo’s dealings with his own family. We hear how Rizzo disapproved of his daughter’s marriage rather than seeing it.

A lot is reported rather than enacted, but that’s OK considering how much material Graham contended with in the long run.

Ancillary characters are well portrayed. Paul L. Nolan is excellent as Marty Weinberg, one of Rizzo’s primary lieutenants and his chief political advisor. Nolan shows Weinberg’s subtlety and patience in dealing with someone who speaks what’s on his mind, sometimes with censorship or taking time to think, and who will violate the tenets of protocol Weinberg tries to instill.

Nolan’s Weinberg has a lot of dignity, as well as sophisticated polish that is the opposite of Rizzo’s streetwise, confident swagger. His job includes trying to persuade Rizzo to do the pragmatic or the expected, something Frank Rizzo cannot be counted on to do.

Damon Bonetti gives a canny performance as Sal Paolantonio, who plays his reporting down the middle and represents a new breed of reporters who delve deeply into facts and don’t mistakes interpretation or public relations hype for them.

Bonetti and Greer have fun playing the love-hate relationship between Paolantonio and Rizzo. You see the men’s begrudging respect for one another. Even when Rizzo is confused that a fellow Italian won’t some into his fold, or take a job as his press secretary, and thinks Paolantonio is out of denigrate him or, worse, betray him.

On Paolantonio’s side, the reporter has to admit he likes Rizzo as a person even as he thinks he is doing everything wrong as mayor.

Amanda Schoonover gets the wifely, homemaking side of Carmella Rizzo, who stands by her man and, while removed from most politics, can be deft at charming reporters and others on Frank’s behalf. William Rahill is as dependable as always in some key supporting roles, including Ralph Rizzo and Pete Camiel. Akeem Davis may be too young to remember Cecil B. Moore, but he captures the former Councilman’s ready way with a one-liner and willingness to be just as direct and brusque with Frank Rizzo as Rizzo is with him. Davis finds the right level of dignity and loyalty for Jim Turner, the black police officer Rizzo nurtured while being accused of racism and promoted to be his personal assistant and bodyguard. Robert Daponte scores in a number of roles, including Robby Pulaski, the officer whose help Rizzo needs to salvage his mayoral campaign.

While I can’t praise “Rizzo” to the hilt, I want to stress once again I admire the piece and think it has merit beyond it flaw, which is to give so much information so directly, it misses chances at touching drama. A case in point would be Rizzo’s desire to be like Richard Daley in Chicago and serve multiple terms, an ambition forbidden by Philadelphia’s City Charter. You hear Rizzo’s intention mentioned and follow his suit to change Philly’s charter through the courts, but you don’t get involved with the outcome. Hearing about the episode is thought to be enough while I would have liked to seen more doggedness from the onstage Rizzo and gotten a sense of some rooting factor, for or against, from the Theatre Exile audience.

One thing I wonder, while I worry I know the Rizzo years too well to look at Graham’s play with fresh, unjaded eyes, is the reaction of audiences who were not alive or too young to take notice when Frank Rizzo prevailed. It would be interesting to hear from such a person.

“Rizzo,” produced by Theatre Exile, runs through Sunday, November 8, at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. Second Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or by visiting www.theatreexile.org.

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