It's a little depressing to think New Yorkers nowadays would not know much about Fiorello LaGuardia, but the Playbill for "Hizzoner!", Paul Shyre's one-man show based on the career of the great mayor, assumes they don't. It contains two pages on his life and career from the sparkling book "Manhattan '45," Jan Morris' valentine to New York in its heyday.
Interestingly, the excerpts from Morris' book do not include his most impressive tribute to LaGuardia's character. In the 42 years since his death, even in the intense muckraking of the '60s, no one has ever uncovered anything to undermine the reputation of the man or his administration for integrity.
Historians have left his image untarnished, and so it has fallen to the theater to diminish him. "Hizzoner!" has the faults of most one-person shows based on famous people. It quickly becomes a history lesson. The famous person gives his chronology and achievements in a way that is so unnatural no actor could make it convincing.
But beyond the didacticism inherent in the genre, Tony Lo Bianco gives LaGuardia a vulgarity, a buffoonishness that diminishes the Little Flower unfairly.
In the very first minute, for example, Lo Bianco's Fiorello does an imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, making his own rasping voice very shrill. We have the sense of a Catskill comic doing impressions an unsettling way to begin.
Lo Bianco makes his entrance sliding down a firepole, a nifty theatrical gesture but one that establishes LaGuardia initially as a cartoon figure.
That LaGuardia had a waspish sense of humor no one can deny. That he understood the way to establish an image in the press was part of his great political savvy. What the evening lacks is any of the dignity that was essential for the son of immigrants to gain the respect of a political establishment still wary of foreigners.
Lo Bianco's LaGuardia is perilously close to a vaudeville Italian. Lo Bianco injured a foot during previews and has to wear an artfully concealed cast. This makes him hobble around the stage oddly like Jimmy Durante. It is a valiant gesture on Lo Bianco's part to continue performing, and probably this minor impediment does not change the interpretation much at all.
What is worthwhile about the evening are the reminders of how many of New York's current problems - education, drugs, unemployment - were problems then. Shyre has his mayor take a dig at Robert Moses: Fiorello phones him to ask, "Bob, when will I be able to drive on the West Side Highway?"
Shyre has been generous with material by LaGuardia himself, a line like "ticker tape ain't spaghetti" and what seem to be actual transcriptions of the famous radio broadcasts.
Unlike the real LaGuardia, whose broadcasts had assurance and, despite his pugnacity, a certain suaveness, Lo Bianco never seems completely in control. He never projects strength. Lo Bianco, in fact, often seems on the edge of hysteria, which may be useful if he bases a show on a later mayor but seems unsuited to LaGuardia.
Lo Bianco, especially in profile, does resemble LaGuardia somewhat. If a show could succeed simply on the expenditure of energy, "Hizzoner!" would be a hit. But ultimately the show becomes an evening that has more to do with Lo Bianco's exertions than the spirit of New York's greatest mayor.
Yes, LaGuardia is not just an airport, and "Fiorello!" not merely the name of a legendary Broadway musical - and to prove the point at the Longacre Theater last night, Tony Lo Bianco appeared in a new one-man show, "Hizzoner!," devoted to the life and times of New York's three-time mayor and all-time hero, Fiorello H. LaGuardia.
To be strictly honest, the point might have been more effectively made by a slap-up revival of "Fiorello!" itself, but one-man shows are more economical, especially when you don't even have to have too much of a setting.
And Lo Bianco cuts an engaging and persuasive figure as LaGuardia. He really seems to have got under the colorful mayor's ample skin, and Paul Shyre's text, directed with energy by John Going, offers a positive plethora of documentation and anecdotage.
Shyre, an actor as well as a playwright, has specialized in these dramatic portraits, and has already given us shows devoted to Walt Whitman, Will Rogers, Janet Flanner and H.L. Mencken, among others.
I am not sure where the vogue came from for these theatrical vignettes showing famous men and women looking over and around their famous lives, but I suppose they may owe something to the somewhat different but surely germane success achieved by Emlyn Williams in his famous characterization of Charles Dickens and his readings.
But there the text, as in certain other very similar ventures, was simply a matter of shrewd editing - Shyre's more complex method is that of the docudrama.
Although his one-person play is clearly carefully researched and, I am sure, uses much of the authentic LaGuardia material taken from speeches, press interviews and the like, the concept is that of a dramatist.
Anyone approaching a play about LaGuardia will surely find good news and bad news. The good news is his character, as is the bad news. He was colorful, but rather in the way of a Ford Tin Lizzie - monochromatic. You can have any color you like, as long as it is sky-blue pink.
Self-opinionated, even self-righteous, outrageous and lovable, La Guardia spread himself through City Hall like a character composed from a positive gallery of Reader's Digest paragraphs about the Most Unforgettable People that Forgettable People have ever met.
He seems to have presented himself even in public office - perhaps particularly in public office - more as a caricature than a person, and this does not help a dramatist.
Shyre has been quite smart in framing his evening as taking place on LaGuardia's last day of office in November, 1945. He is, I imagine, already a sick man - he died two years later - and on this final day he is holding his last press conference (Shyre quite adroitly envisages the theater audience as the questioning reporters) and packing up the bags and papers of his mayoralty.
He recalls his first day in office, and his initial precept for a New York mayor: "You think action, you speak action and you create action." The play is a bit like that as well, but there is more action thought and spoken then created.
For the fact is that after his battles with the corruption of Tammany Hall - which is outside the actual framework of the play - not a great deal happened to him.
In retrospect, he can unload his heart about the loss of his first wife and infant daughter, and he can constantly belabor all the varied and various enemies of the people.
As a result, with very little other than political rhetoric and splendid in-fighting and grandstanding to run with, Shyre and Lo Bianco give us a public mask, rather than a private face.
LaGuardia's stirring solution to New York's drug problem - go for the dealers with baseball bats - sounds terrific, but personally I doubt whether even the lion-hearted LaGuardia would wish to face a semi-automatic Uzi with a baseball bat.
This, of course, is an example of the play's simplistic politics, and its basic trouble is that its sole character appears to be running for office as much as appearing in a play.
And Lo Bianco, who injured his foot in the play's striking entrance at some point last week, and is continuing totally unabated with one foot discreetly encased in plaster, does a terrific job of electioneering.
Sweating profusely, his eyes gesticulating and his hands glaring, Lo Bianco works the audience with most attractive skill. He has got the Little Flower's high-pitched, plaintive whine to seeming perfection, and the mayor's message of patience and fortitude comes over good and strong.
Yet the one moment where Shyre and Lo Bianco seem to be attempting to go beyond the puppet image of a politician in full cry - when LaGuardia at the end is confessing to one of his "beaut" mistakes, the bulldozing during the Depression of Riverside Park's shantytown to make room for the West Side Highway - the chance is fudged.
LaGuardia still emerges, even here, as a vote-hungry politico on the electoral make and eager for moral approval.
The odd thing is that a far, far clearer picture of LaGuardia emerges from a passage on him reprinted in the show's playbill, and taken from Jan Morris' book, "Manhattan '45." There, if you like, is a really unfortunate irony.
Impersonation is not simply the art of mimicking mannerisms but of reaching to the heart of the manner, creating, even for an instant, an incarnation rather than an imitation. Such is not the case with Tony Lo Bianco's Fiorello La Guardia in ''Hizzoner!,'' the one-man show that opened last night at the Longacre Theater.
As a muckraking, progressive, fiercely independent mayor of New York City, La Guardia left a valuable political legacy as well as proof that flamboyance is not necessarily antithetical to accomplishment. He was a masterly politician and manipulator of his own image. The La Guardia represented on stage in Paul Shyre's monodrama is, instead, a buffoon. He would win few votes either as a candidate or as a comedian.
In attempting to mimic La Guardia's distinctive high-pitched voice, Mr. Lo Bianco wanders from James Cagney to Elmer Fudd. The cartoon aspect of his performance is underscored by his conclusion of a press conference with a New York-accented version of Porky Pig's signoff, ''D-d-d-dat's all folks.''
An injury sustained during a performance has forced Mr. Lo Bianco to perform with a cast on his foot. One sympathizes with the actor's predicament, and Eldon Elder's cluttered and unsightly set offers additional obstacles. But there is no dramatic justification for Mr. Lo Bianco to bounce around the stage as he does. One fully expects him to be catapulted trampoline-style into the audience. Actually there is one direct involvement with the audience. In an ill-advised moment, he entices a theatergoer to come on stage with him, breaking whatever small sense of period and credibility he has achieved.
As an actor, Mr. Lo Bianco has been most adept in naturalistic roles, as in the revival of Arthur Miller's ''View From the Bridge.'' But he is not a chameleon. His performance as La Guardia is a busy gathering of poses, stances and tics. Working energetically and perspiring profusely, he quickly becomes a wilted Little Flower.
Mr. Shyre and the director, John Going, share in the liability. As a monodrama, ''Hizzoner!'' is in direct contrast to Willy Russell's recently opened ''Shirley Valentine,'' in which the actress Pauline Collins gradually unfolds the fullness of a character. ''Hizzoner!'' is less a play than a diversionary action, as the playwright raids the cupboard of cliches in an attempt to disguise the fact that there is only one actor in the cast.
The stage La Guardia repeatedly talks on the telephone, shouts to unseen assistants, answers unseen reporters and re-creates his fireside-style radio show. Eventually there is an obligatory reading of the funnies during a newspaper strike, one of La Guardia's more memorable activities. As performed, it is merely childish.
Ostensibly the show takes place on La Guardia's last day as Mayor, in 1945. As he packs his belongings in large wooden crates, each item leads to a reminiscence. A tabletop Trylon and Perisphere sparks a memory of the 1939 World's Fair. There are enough mementoes and empty cases for him to re-enact his entire term of office, although we never receive an adequate impression of the complexity of this dynamic figure.
Hats are aligned on the wall and at various points he pretends to be a fireman, cowboy and Indian chief. Wearing a soldier's helmet, he declares that Dec. 7, 1941, was ''a day that will live in infamy.'' Because of his falsely cherubic countenance, it might have been more appropriate if he had borrowed ''blood, sweat and tears.''
Mr. Shyre has written a number of interesting stage documentaries, including his adaptations of Sean O'Casey's memoirs. This time he unwisely ambles away from his central subject to embrace anecdotes from others - for example, Dorothy Parker on Calvin Coolidge - padding an already overlong show.
At one point the Mayor lists his accomplishments, as if offering a resume for a future campaign. He names the bridges, tunnels, highways and airports that surround our city. As one may have forgotten, they derived from La Guardia's time in office and were largely the handiwork of Robert Moses. Mr. Shyre seeks extra dramatic mileage and wins a few smiles by casting a 1980's perspective on these public-works projects. When they are all completed, predicts the Mayor, ''driving your car in New York City will be a pleasure.''
For all of La Guardia's contributions, New York's urban problems have intensified. With a mayoral election approaching, his unflaggable spirit is certainly worth re-evoking, perhaps with a revival of the musical ''Fiorello!''
Though the current portrait is intended to be admiring, a curious distortion takes place. The Mayor's iconoclasm becomes mean-spirited and his political acumen seems accidental. ''Hizzoner!'' succeeds in diminishing La Guardia's stature.