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Theater review: 'FDR' at Pasadena Playhouse

October 14, 2010 |  4:30 pm

FDR 1[1] 

Few people would mistake Ed Asner for Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Fiorello La Guardia is the political figure most would say TV’s Lou Grant was born to play). But there’s no mistaking Asner’s reason for taking on the role of the 32nd president in the one-person drama “FDR”: History has an uncanny way of repeating itself, and lessons about leadership are there to be mined. 

Admittedly, this portrait of the man who led America out of the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II isn’t the most energetic way of reopening the Pasadena Playhouse, which has been closed since February because of financial hardship. The work, an adaptation of Dore Schary’s 1958 Broadway drama “Sunrise at Campobello,” has a scholastic quality that made me wish I had brought along a yellow highlighter with my pad and pen to help me keep track of all the cabinet officials mentioned in this often insular recap of FDR’s governmental career.    

Asner, looking like a professor emeritus in a loosely fitting cardigan, wheels himself onstage and launches into his character’s retrospective survey, touching straightway on the polio that left this proud patrician needing two canes to get around. (The 1960 film version of “Sunrise at Campobello” was notable for its candor regarding FDR’s medical condition.)

Ed Asner as FDR 4[2]

Matters of state, however, overshadow personal details in this production, which is really a vehicle for Asner’s civic concerns. Eleanor (or “Babs,” as her husband used to call her), is mentioned only sporadically. There’s background noise about an extramarital relationship, but the focus is on policies and political maneuvering.

Some of that discussion has a dry “Meet the Press” flavor that can seem as appetizing as a plate of boiled spinach. Still, the resonances with the country’s current turmoil come in loud and clear. “Now whether the American people will pull themselves out of this depression, I can only say, ‘They will…if they want to,’ ” FDR declares, slyly quoting Andrew Jackson as a way of urging voters to continue standing behind him despite all the uncertainty.

Later, FDR’s ire rises as he reflects on the ingratitude of bankers and businessmen who raced to Washington as though it were an emergency hospital during the worst part of the economic crisis. “Most of them are doing very nicely!” he remarks. “Some of them are even well enough to throw their crutches at the doctor! Well, if they do that, I’m going to throw them right back.”

Two qualities of his leadership shine through: Decisiveness and a sensitivity to language. His habit is to act when he’s 51% convinced of a plan. (“If I waited for 100%, I’d never get anything done.”) And he recognizes how the right phrase (“rendezvous with destiny,” “a date which will live in infamy”) can powerfully sway public opinion.

The most exciting portion of “FDR” revolves around the Second World War, in which the country was once again forced to confront the most perilous of circumstances. Sacrifice, courage and collective will were inspired by a president who felt the attack on Pearl Harbor was an affront not just to the nation but to his own dignity. Asner’s performance enshrines FDR’s heroic service. The perspective may be uncritical, but the feeling it generates of national unity is a useful corrective to the partisan rancor of today.
The production has a tendency to fall into monotonous rhythms and would have benefited from the shaping hand of a director. (None is listed in the program, suggesting Asner was forced to edit himself.) And the script includes one too many press conferences and bureaucratic telephone calls (“Hello, ah Cordell! What’s the latest word on the claims against the Canadian distillers?”).
Those who enjoy no-frills PBS documentaries on Important Subjects will forgive the duller patches. Noble intentions can be fortifying. Most of all it’s good to see the Pasadena Playhouse back in business, but its future will depend on livelier artistic fare.   

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“FDR,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.(Call for exceptions.) Ends Nov. 7. $29.00 - $59.00. (626) 356-7529 or  Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Photos: Top and bottom: Ed Asner. Credit: The Theatre Guild