Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hizzoner

In one of the first scenes in Hizzoner, Neil Giuntoli's extraordinary play about Richard J. Daley, an aide tells the mayor that he'll be waiting just outside the door if hizzoner needs anything. As the aide hovers, Daley gives a barely perceptible nod, no words but a clear message: "Go."

It's a subtle moment for a character not known for subtlety, but what it says about Daley's style and self-understanding sets the tone for what comes after. He is boss, obsessively and unreflectively.

As a little graduation gift to myself, Laura and I saw the play, which has been running for months already, last night at the Prop Thtr. Giuntoli wrote it and also stars as Daley, inhabiting the character in a way that is authentic and immersive. He gets the angry, hot-tempered outbursts and the bureaucratic coldness, he gets the South Side Irish Catholic accent so thick it borders on a brogue, and most impressively he gets the underlying insecurity of the political boss.

Such is Giuntoli's commitment that when the script calls for Daley to have a coughing fit, the actor hacks and wheezes and turns his face red to the point that my dear wife told me she wondered if she'd have to get up and perform CPR.

The play largely centers on 1968, the year of Daley's monstrous "shoot to kill" order during the rioting that followed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his authoritarian handling of the Democratic Convention. But it's a complex portrait of the mayor, not a propaganda tract: We also see humanizing details like Daley's delight at plans to build the Hancock Center, his religiosity, his love of the White Sox. Giuntoli fills the performance with small, telling details -- pauses, double-takes, orders written down on notecards -- that carry the complexity of that head-nod from the first scene.

Some of the play's best moments are between Daley and a childhood acquaintance named Billy, whose character serves as a surrogate for all Chicago's working people. When Billy gets critical of his old friend Dick, Daley brusquely instructs him that "it's Mayor Daley to you."

It must be said that few of the other actors come close to matching the intensity of Giuntoli's performance; but then, it's obvious Giuntoli is especially close to the material.

That boyish delight over the Hancock Center is another one of the play's key moments. It is a great building, and the audience shares Daley's enjoyment -- there's a laugh when, in true second-city style, he predicts that it'll make everyone forget all about the Empire State Building. But of course Richard J. Daley's (like Richard M. Daley's) overemphasis on big buildings and monuments was also one of his great shortcomings as a mayor. And that's the strength of Giuntoli's performance: We see hizzoner for all his serious flaws and shortcomings, but we also come to see the city through his eyes.

MORE:
Eight Forty-Eight interview with Giuntoli
NPR interview with Giuntoli
John Kass on Hizzoner
Tribune review of the play

1 comment:

Neil Giuntoli said...

I'm so so glad you and the Mrs. enjoyed the play, and thank you for your kind assessment of my work. I'm up late, post show, idly web surfing, can't sleep and I stumbled upon your post. Very kind of you, it made me smile. In return, let me turn you onto a great bit of TV journalism, the PBS series "Frontline" did a new episode called "Cheney's Law". What I like about "Frontline" is that they have no ideological bent, straight reporting and impeccably produced.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/cheney/

by the by, they have 62 episodes, that you can watch for free. If I wasn;t an actor/playwright, it would be the kind of work I'd like to do.

God bless you and the wife, neil giuntoli