One important rule before putting on a one-person show must surely be to make sure you find someone who is already beloved. Actress Holland Taylor has found that in Ann Richards, the former Texas governor with the cotton candy hair and down-home humor.
"Ann," which opened Thursday at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, is choppy in parts and sometimes loses focus, but cannot be denied as a moving valentine by a fully committed Taylor, who is also its writer. Taylor becomes Richards, somehow capturing that glint in the Texan's eye, reveling in being her at her witty best.
"I bet some of you probably remember ME just 'cause of my hair," Richards opens the play, in a perfect good-'ol-boy accent. "I notice most of you guys who tease me about my hair don't have any."
The silver-tongued Richards, a longtime politicians and one-term governor from 1991 to 1995, was a longtime champion of women and minorities in government. She died in 2006 at age 73 after battling cancer.
Her most famous line perhaps was when she electrified the 1988 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech in which she joked that Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush had been "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
That line interestingly doesn't appear in Taylor's play, which the script tells us is based on "writings of Ann Richards, interviews with her staff, friends and family, film records, news publications, anecdote and imagination." Taylor is aiming for a more personal look and that big line might overwhelm her efforts.
The two-hour play asks the audience to know some American history and be aware of such figures as the politician Barbara Jordan, Richards' press aide Bill Cryer and the death row inmate Johnny Frank Garrett. (Rob Lowe's sex tape also gets a nod.) One of biggest rounds of applause is heard for Richards' defense of her concealed weapons veto, which has resonance now. The man who defeated her for the governorship, George W. Bush, is never mentioned.
Taylor, perhaps best known for playing the feisty grandmother on the CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men," has previously taken her play — a labor of love — to various theaters in Texas, as well as Chicago and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Her Richards uses a spot-on Paul Huntley wig and is slightly stooped and stiff, always eager to get out of her high heels.
Directed wisely and effectively by Benjamin Endsley Klein, the work opens as a commencement address in which Richards explains her early years and then morphs into a behind-the-scenes extended vignette in the hectic governor's office with Richards handling multiple phone calls from her family, staff and Bill Clinton as she badgers her staff over the intercom. She even mends a frayed flag edge, a nice way of showing her laser-like focus.
In an inspired moment of the play, Richards, engrossed in her work, asks her unseen assistant if she's even gone to the bathroom today. Realizing that she hasn't, Richards strides offstage, ending Act I in a way many in the audience will emulate.
Act 2 continues her busy day in the mansion and deals with her ouster from the office, and Richards then morphs into her post-governor's job in New York City. It ends with an inspirational speech she never gave. The transitions are seamless and Michael Fagin's handsome sets slip in and out without fuss.
Taylor's Richards is a hoot yet she almost gets upstaged by another character, which is hard to do in a one-woman show. But two purring phone calls between her and Clinton are some of the play's highlights, perhaps proving that only Clinton can outshine Ann Richards.
She knew life wasn’t fair and that government should be, deemed herself a “fun” drunk and kept an armadillo paperweight on her desk in the capitol.
That’s how Ann Richards rolled, y’all.
Those are a few of the takeaways from “Ann,” an affectionate but uneven bio-drama about the late Texas governor, written by and starring Holland Taylor.
The play, which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont, arrives on Broadway following runs over the past few years in San Antonio and Austin, Tex., Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Richards rocketed to fame at the 1988 Democratic convention and died of cancer in 2006 at age 73. Between those points, she became an all-American icon, a homemaker-turned-change-maker in the old boys’ club of Lone Star State government. A subject worth celebrating.
A first-time playwright, Taylor is a veteran stage and TV actress who won an Emmy for “The Practice.” She weaves her show with thoroughly researched facts and writerly imagination. The play launches in straightforward but lively fashion.
Dressed in a white suit that matches her signature cotton-candy cloud of hair and her voice basted with a bit of barbecue sauce, Richards addresses graduates at a fictional college. Michael Fagin designed the good-looking sets. Zachary Borovay’s projections add texture.
The commencement address is a familiar framework (“Thurgood” did likewise in 2008), but looking forward is a perfect excuse to look back. Richards shone before a crowd. So does Taylor.
Richards recalls her Texas girlhood near Waco in Lakeview “where there was no lake to view.” Her dad was warm, her mom was icy. She married for love, raised kids, then divorced and discovered solace, passion and power in politics. She addresses her intervention and hard-fought sobriety. This section of the play gallops along and flows with sass and spontaneity.
Then the telephone starts buzzing.
Taylor and director Benjamin Endsley Klein have Richards trade the college setting for her office in the Texas capitol.
Fast and furious phone calls come from good pal President Clinton, hapless staffers, Richards’ children and others. Ann cusses and struggles to make a decision on a stay of execution and pins sagging fringe on the Texas flag — once a homemaker, always a homemaker.
Politics and motherhood have much in common. That’s the point and it’s a fine one. But dramatically, it’s inert. And it feels generic. This is a portrait of every executive woman.
Before circling back to the commencement speech, a scene finds Richards reflecting on her death and starry memorial. It’s awkward and just pads a show that could stand to shed 10 minutes and the momentum-killing intermission.
But Taylor is a pistol. She immerses herself deep into the role, conveying Richards’ big-as-Texas appeal. In the end, the star outshines the star vehicle.
Holland Taylor’s “Ann” is a labor of love. The actress, best known for key supporting roles on “Two and a Half Men” and “The Practice,” spent about four years researching and writing this solo bio-play in which she stars as the outspoken, one-term Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards. “Ann” is to Taylor what “Mark Twain” is to Hal Holbrook: an all-consuming project.
Sadly, it must have been more involving for the actress to plan and perform the show than it is for the audience to sit through it. “Ann,” which opened on Broadway last night, has plenty of heart, but it lacks drama.
Which is odd, because Richards’ life was full of it, and she herself had a storyteller’s quick wit and sense of humor. She’s still remembered for a momentous speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention that included a description of George H.W. Bush as having been born “with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Taylor packs a lot of good lines in her show, but she lacks a Texan’s verve for outsize tales.
You can’t fault her performance. Strapped in one of Richards’ trademark suits, a halo of white hair perched on top of her head, she brings the late politician back to life, dropping bon mots in a light drawl.
The problems stem more from the writing. The show’s framing contrivance has Richards looking back on her life in a commencement address. This is a cradle-to-grave journey, starting in a Waco lower-middle-class family and ending with the Texan’s death of cancer in 2006, at 73.
Part of Richards’ appeal was her frankness, especially about her alcoholism. This gets Taylor some of her funnier lines, delivered with impeccable droll timing.
“I broke a barrier for politicians with an addiction in their past,” Richards recalls. “And nowadays, hell, you can’t hardly even get into a primary unless you’ve done time in rehab.”
But when Richards reaches the peak of Lone Star politics, Taylor drops the commencement device and puts us in the governor’s office in Austin. Michael Fagin’s set smartly reframes the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s vast stage — which hosted epics like “South Pacific” and “War Horse” — to a more intimate scale.
We then spend what feels like forever watching Richards on the phone as she breathlessly multitasks. At one point she fixes a loose fringe on the Texas flag while chatting with one of her sons about Thanksgiving dinner.
The brightest moments come from Richards’ exchanges with the disembodied voice of her assistant, speaking with her boss through an intercom. A pre-recorded Julie White (“The Little Dog Laughed”) delivers these lines with such wry stoicism, you can’t wait for her to buzz through again.
Imagine what the show would have been like had White actually been onstage — like politics, theater often plays better with flesh-and-blood foils.
She was a memorable figure even before she opened her mouth — that sculptured meringue of hair seemed to enter the room before she did — and an unforgettable one when she opened it, as salty wisecracks poured forth like popcorn from a machine. She was politically as blue as they come, but managed to win the leadership of a state as red-trending as any in the land. She acquired a national political profile without holding national office, and openly discussed her alcoholism before this became a rite of passage for famous figures from across the political spectrum.
Unless you slept through the late 1980s and the 1990s, folks, you probably know by now that I refer to Ann Richards, the onetime governor of Texas, whose life and career are being given a ticker tape parade on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the new Broadway show “Ann,” written by and starring Holland Taylor, opened on Thursday night.
To put it as the plain-talking Richards might, this one-dynamo show — Ms. Taylor is the lone cast member — is neither a shapely work of drama nor a deeply probing character study. But admirers of Richards probably won’t give a darn. She was a brightly shining political star and an inspiring figure during the years of her renown, and Ms. Taylor is essentially just giving this beloved dame one more chance to bask in the spotlight.
As a performer, Ms. Taylor also emerges from this two-hour pep rally smelling like a rose (a yellow one, let us say). In a Broadway season sadly deficient, at this late juncture, in impressive leading performances from women (not that notable women’s roles have been thick on the ground), Ms. Taylor’s lively, funny, humane Ann Richards looks mighty formidable, despite the unshaded if colorful writing and the slack direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein.
The solo format is challenging to negotiate even for seasoned playwrights, of course. Ms. Taylor divides the show into distinct sections: the first half-hour or so consists of a speech Richards is giving at a college graduation in some imaginary “present,” as the program has it. (Richards died in 2006.) The device allows Richards to retail folksy advice to a new generation, but mostly to reminisce about her unlikely path from contentedly domesticated housewife to high-office holder.
Her history runs along well-worn lines that make good bio copy for American politicians to this day: “simple as a crayon drawing,” as Ms. Taylor’s Ann puts it. A Depression-era baby, she was born in rural Texas to a doting father who was “pure sunlight,” and a mother who kept pointing out the clouds in the sky. She skirts smoothly over her divorce from David Richards, a civil rights lawyer whose unwillingness to run for a particular office instigated his wife’s full-ahead plunge into the “contact sport” that is Texas politics. Even her battle with alcoholism is dispatched with a few jokes and a few home truths.
“I musta drunk eleven hundred thousand martinis by the time I landed in A.A. — and by then, I was this big ol’ county commissioner!” she recalls. “So I like to think I broke a barrier for politicians with an addiction in their past. And nowadays, hell, you can’t hardly even get into a primary unless you’ve done time in rehab.”
After this tidy, homespun recital of her upbringing and history in local politics before the governorship, Richards then steps away from the podium and onto an imposing set (by Michael Fagin) representing the Texas governor’s office, where a harried day in the life of the hard-driving Richards unfolds.
She displays more or less the same qualities in the public and (comparatively) private spheres. She’s frank and funny, earthy and warm, tough as saddle leather and, when it comes to family and friends, loyal as they come. Juggling flurries of phone calls as she whips through a busy day (Bill Clinton is first on the line), Ann takes just as much time to arrange a family vacation, smoothing over one son’s sensitivities when it comes to charades, flatly telling his sister that she’s baking the pies again.
She’s both demanding and nurturing to her devoted staff, complaining vociferously about her tardy speechwriter at one moment, ordering up a trunk full of cowboy boots as gifts the next. Running on gut instinct, she also has the political savvy to know exactly how much capital her tougher decisions are going to cost: during this day-in-the-life scene, Richards is wrestling with a decision to grant a stay of execution to a notorious murderer.
“Right now on the news they’re saying Governor Richards ‘did not take’ Mother Teresa’s call!” she rants to her secretary in an outer office (patiently voiced by no less than the Tony-winning, Texas-bred Julie White). “I was giving a speech — it’s not like I hung up on her.”
Ms. Taylor, wearing a facsimile of a Chanel-style suit Richards once wore, her cherry-red lips blazing beneath a white wig that seems to travel with its own spotlight, has worked this lovably ornery woman deep into her bones. If you can spy even a crack of daylight between actor and character in this performance, you’ve got better eyes than I do.
The temptation, when portraying a woman who was larger than life even as she consciously played the good ol’ girl next door, would surely be to go big, broad and brassy. But while Ms. Taylor delivers the text’s many chicken-fried wisecracks and homey anecdotes with silky relish, she wisely keeps her performance grounded and human in scale.
Richly stocked in amusing lore as it is, “Ann” remains bright, peppy and unreflecting through its somewhat overextended running time. Much like a politician de nos jours, the play also seems at pains to alienate no possible constituencies: although she was defeated in a bid for re-election by George W. Bush, his name is nowhere mentioned in “Ann,” notwithstanding Richards’s famous quip that his father was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
This despite the unnecessary presence of not one but two codas, the first describing Richards’s life post-governorship, the second a return to the speechifying mode of the play’s opening. Here the play digresses a little tediously into a sermon on the importance of public service (“The government isn’t ‘they’! The government — is you! It is me, it is us!”), followed by a series of loosely strung pearls of wisdom and parting thoughts. (“The here and now is all you have, and if you play it right, it’s all you need.”)
Ann the preacher is not as appealing as Ann the canny politician or Ann the retailer of fricasseed repartee. But as portrayed by Ms. Taylor, she still remains fine company. Her bid for re-election may have been doomed partly by Richards’s brave decision to oppose a bill allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons, but even her foes would have to concede that the woman sure was a pistol.
As anyone knows whose life overlapped with Ann Richards' career -- and shares her liberal/progressive politics -- the poor-born Texan was obviously a crackerjack individual and a pioneering powerhouse for women.
And according to "Ann," the solo play by and starring Holland Taylor, the boundary-breaking one-term governor of Texas really did have that famous, frisky sense of humor. She always found time to smooth out squabbles between her four grown kids. She was tough and demanding with her staff, but also fair and generous. Bill Clinton, who was president during her 1991-95 heyday, always returned her calls.
Taylor, the Emmy-winning TV actress and exemplary force for feistiness, spent four years researching "Ann," her first -- and she vows -- her last play. The actress has the droll and the drawl down as pat as the look. She wears Richards' boxy white suit topped with matching white cotton-candy hair -- what the late columnist and fellow feisty Texan, the late columnist Molly Ivins, called her Republican hair.
This is an expert impersonation and labor of biographical love. I'd call it a hagiography, if the "hag" part didn't sound insulting to women.
What "Ann" does not have, alas, is conflict, tension or even an unusual form to complement the unexpected arc of Richards' unusual life.
This is an old-fashioned, straightforward solo bio that feels especially lulling in the Beaumont, where the Lincoln Center Theater has staged so many important adventures. ("Ann" is a rental, not an LCT production, brought in when, according to official reports, "War Horse" closed earlier than expected.)
We first meet Richards as she is delivering a commencement address. Director Benjamin Endsley Klein and set designer Michael Fagin work in photos from her youth that make us appreciate how far Richards traveled.
Then we watch her at her desk in her wood-trimmed office, dogged as a high-functioning terrier as she juggles phone calls, stands up for her concealed-weapons veto, ponders the effect of the execution stay she is about to give to a disturbed murderer. Audiences at Tuesday's preview actually applauded her declarations.
Even her defeat by George W. Bush and her cancer, which killed her at 73 in 2006, do not sour her gusto for a fairer government. The production, which already toured Texas, Chicago and Washington, feels primed to get out there on the road again. A "fresh from Broadway" label can't hurt the marketing. Otherwise, this trip does not feel necessary.
For anyone playing that old game in which you pick a historical figure to share a meal with, former Texas governor Ann Richards has to be an attractive candidate. Famously feisty and richly quotable, Richards remained an entertaining and beloved figure right up to her death in 2006.
But a great dinner companion is not necessarily an ideal subject for a nearly two-hour play. It's not belittling Richards' considerable accomplishments to observe that she was most appreciated for her inspiring back story and outsize personality; and in Holland Taylor's Ann (* * 1/2 out of four stars), which opened Thursday at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, those qualities -- particularly the latter -- are stretched pretty thin.
Taylor, a stage and screen actress best known for her work in television -- most recently on Two and Half Men -- both wrote and stars in Ann, essentially a one-woman play. (Julie White's voice is heard as that of Richards' beleaguered secretary, but she never appears onstage.) It would be a tall order even for an experienced playwright, and Holland has, to her credit, crafted a deeply affectionate, often clever tribute that provides more than a few laughs.
But the comedy can become tedious, especially after the setting shifts back from a Texas college auditorium where Richards is addressing a graduating class to the office where she spent her one term as governor (before losing the 1994 election to George W. Bush). For a good chunk of the show, we watch as she fields an endless array of phone calls from staff, other political figures (among them then-president Bill Clinton) and her four grown children.
In these conversations -- of which we hear only one side, but can frequently imagine the other -- Taylor's Richards is alternately cantankerous and charming, earnest and profane. We are relentlessly reminded, in discussions that veer from the plight of a death-row inmate to the question of who's cooking the turkey for an upcoming family retreat, that this is a woman with a mind, tongue and temper as sharp as tacks, and a heart as big as the state she represents.
Richards is treated, in other words, much like a sitcom character. Her notable achievements are alluded to -- revitalizing the local economy, reforming the prison system, championing civil and reproductive rights -- but in ways that are both simplistic and pedantic. There's also something slightly patronizing about all the "y'all"s and "yegods" with which Taylor -- a Yankee, as she admits in her author's notes -- litters her speech.
Ann is most affecting when Taylor focuses on Richards' personal challenges and joys, from her battles with alcoholism and cancer to her relationship with the adored father who provided her formidable confidence. "Daddy, you were right, I was smart," she cheers at the end. "And I could do anything I wanted to!"
We didn't need a play to tell us that, but Ann, for all its shortcomings, makes a convincing case.
"Ann," the play written by and starring Holland Taylor, opened March 7 on Broadway after a tour that included a stop at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The following is Paul Harris’s review of the show’s D.C. engagement, which ran in Variety Jan. 5. Both the credits and the body of this review have been edited to reflect changes to the producing team, the running time and the script.
Former Texas governor Ann Richards, one of the Lone Star State’s more colorful and outspoken figures, is impersonated with full frontal feistiness in “Ann,” a solo play written and performed by Holland Taylor. Actress pays homage to the late political figure (Richards died of cancer in 2006) with an affectionate portrayal that celebrates her wit, determination and homespun values; result is an enjoyable perspective of an imperfect solo subject, given Richards’ limited consequence on the U.S. political stage.
In most respects, the anecdote-filled vignette told here is about her spunk. The play opens at a commencement address being delivered by the ex-governor, buoyant despite the disappointment of her re-election defeat by George W. Bush. A penchant for colorful speech quickly emerges as she greets the unseen graduating class at the outset of lighthearted reflections gleaned from a modest childhood under a domineering mother.
Dressed in a white suit and perfect wig, Taylor delivers a strikingly realistic portrayal with her Texas twang, confident smile and no-nonsense demeanor. Topics include a passion for fairness rooted in Richards’ experiences at a multiracial school, a failed marriage to a civil rights attorney and life as a functioning alcoholic coaxed into politics.
The setting eventually morphs into designer Michael Fagin’s cheery governor’s office, dominated by an imposing desk and twin state flags. Show becomes a presumed day-in-the-life glimpse of a tireless and demanding exec juggling matters weighty and frivolous at director Benjamin Klein’s allegro tempo, seasoned liberally with humor.
This day’s activities include deliberating over a controversial death row pardon request, criticizing a speech writer’s failings, micro-managing a weekend family getaway, bantering on the phone with President Bill Clinton and pausing to mend a frayed flag. A nonstop barrage of urgent telephone calls continues throughout, fielded by an unseen secretary. In the final moments, Richards is remembered in a touching moment from the hereafter.
Show would seem to have built-in limitations in today’s highly partisan political climate but received a warm welcome opening night from a decidedly Democratic crowd at the Kennedy Center.