Mayor Richard J. Daley seems a stretch as a tragic figure. No Hamlet, no Claudius, surely no Othello, resides at 3536 S. Lowe Ave. in Bridgeport. You could argue there's questionable magnitude in dolling out city patronage jobs to well-behaved acolytes or berating Mike Royko and his ilk for planting nary a tree and building nary a building. And much as Abbie Hoffman might have wanted the mayor's head on an Act 5 pike, he never quite got it.
But Neil Giuntoli's thoroughly gripping new bio-drama at the Prop Thtr, "Hizzoner," is here to make one heck of a persuasive case that Daley I -- a man controlled, like all the great tragic heroes, by both passion and paradox -- deserves his spot on the neo-classical shelf. There surely were ghosts in Bridgeport. And there also was a tragic fall from power, even if a former altar boy at Nativity of Our Lord should expect a lifetime of grace.Be the assignment Oedipus, King Lear or Tony Soprano, the first order of business when playing the almightily powerful is to show us the fear behind their eyes. These are dramas about men at the top with only one place to go. Down. And if they're not wearing panic at their coming extinction right on their ugly mugs, then the actor ain't doing his job.
Giuntoli's performance as Daley truly is a sight to behold. Not only has he achieved an astonishing level of physical veracity -- many in the audience on Sunday afternoon were shaking their heads as if people couldn't quite believe what they were seeing -- but he clearly understands that the key to Daley was not about power but insecurity, not about control but his terror at the lack of it, not about egocentrism but about a peculiarly selfless love of a city.
In other words, Giuntoli gets at Daley through the backdoor of the bungalow and thus he finds the depth in his man.
It's a performance so emotional the actor barely gets through it. Clearly, it's rooted in both profound knowledge and considerable affection, but it's also studiously even-handed. The petty rages boil needlessly, and when he dispenses that infamous shoot-to-kill order, a voice of militaristic steel emerges. But then when his Daley runs a chubby finger down all 100 stories of a model of the John Hancock Building, the pride of a schoolboy done good emerges without any imposed irony. And when Daley talks about the pleasures of nights spent watching the White Sox, his arms around his boys, real tears glisten in Giuntoli's eyes.
It has to be said that the play "Hizzoner" is not a full equal of the central performance, even though both are the work of the same man. But the script problems are mainly structural -- the framing device wobbles, needless short scenes undermine the rhythm, the acts are unbalanced, some buttons are over-pushed. Stuff like that. Stefan Brun's direction is generally right-headed, but sometimes choppy and weirdly paced. These issues could all easily be fixed if Giuntoli had either some chats with an outside eye, or a decent editor. The actual impulses of the work are all thoroughly sound. Set almost entirely in the mayoral office (where he scribbles on those famous little bits of paper), the play follows Daley as he struggles shrewdly against Martin Luther King Jr. and what he thinks will be a 1968 invasion of the city by the long-haired descendants of the people who once blackballed his father. But the main core of the drama is the slow corruption of Daley's own aides -- represented here by Ald. Tom Keane (Whit Spurgeon), widely viewed as the second most powerful man in Chicago government and by the Daley aide Matt Dahaner (Wm. Bullion), whose influence perhaps is a tad overestimated for dramatic purposes. Perhaps not.
The notion that the powerful man who ran as being above corruption -- and who demonstrably had no personal taste for graft -- ultimately was hurt (and, by reputation, destroyed) by his underlings is just one of many paradoxes in the play, which also poses the compelling question of whether Daley actually helped Richard Nixon get elected more than he did John F. Kennedy. Most impressive of all is how Giuntoli captures Daley's difficult walk around matters of race. We see him try to consign Jesse Jackson (Varrick Douglas, in a dead-on take) to a job in a tollbooth. But we also see the affection in his eyes for a young man going into the church. Such were the complexities of a rigid man. Such was the source of his popularity. Such is the potential sophistication of this piece.
For students of the old man and the city he maybe hurt and maybe saved, this is a show not to be missed. And one can only hope that someone takes this piece to the next level of production. The mayor, after all, shouldn't stay too far outside the Loop.
Go to www.hizzonertheplay.com for more information, including showtimes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times