Given the water wings of a viable performance, one-person shows about historical figures tend to sink or swim on the raconteurship of their subjects. Court holders like Gertrude Stein and Truman Capote provide better odds than, say, General Douglas MacArthur. Dick Flavin’s According to Tip, which is in its world premiere from New Repertory Theatre (at Arsenal Center for the Arts through July 13), has itself a doozy of a subject. In the imperfectly bewigged but aptly shambling and twinkling person of Tony-winning actor and one-time TV White Shadow Ken Howard, consummate Massachusetts pol and long-time Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill sings Irish ditties, swings his golf club, sucks his cigar, and gives good anecdote, both historical and blarney-cal. He came into politics when it was “entertainment” rather than “advertising,” he says, and he knows how to put on a show. So why doesn’t the audience “sit back and let an old guy tell you a story or two?” The crowd at the performance I attended licked those stories out of his hand.
ACCORDING TO TIP: Ken Howard relates “true” stories that might not have actually happened.
Toward the end of According to Tip, which begins at the height of the Speaker’s political shoot-’em-up with Ronald Reagan but is mostly chronological, an aging O’Neill remarks that “it’s not easy getting off stage when you feel you still have a few songs left in you.” That would seem truer of one-time television commentator and sports maven Flavin than of his subject, who retired at 73. The one trouble with According to Tip — almost two hours long, including an intermission — is that the material needs to be pared down. (I’d suggest the omission of random anecdotes about little-known Massachusetts politicians.) O’Neill may have been a three-time failure at Weight Watchers, but this show needs to go there.
Pausing after a woolly tale about Henry Ford’s being bilked by some crafty Irishmen, According to Tip’s O’Neill adds, “That’s a true story — whether it actually happened is another thing.” But according to Flavin, who knew O’Neill, most of the piece is “historically accurate.” No question that it captures the colorful North Cambridge man for whom “all politics is local.” Flavin’s O’Neill is blunt (Bobby Kennedy “treated me like a piece of garbage”), courtly (singing “In Apple Blossom Time” to wife Millie before waltzing an imaginary her around the stage), clout-seeking if self-depreciating, and unflaggingly populist. Slipping in and out of his rumpled suit coat while negotiating a stage chock with mementos and festooned, in Janie E. Howland’s set design, with caricatures of the seven presidents under whom he conducted a 34-year career in Washington, O’Neill holds forth for the audience, going so far as to ask, after intermission, whether there’s a “quorum.”
Howard’s shrewd, charming, bear-like, and sometimes brooding O’Neill, propelled among the detritus of his memories by director Rick Lombardo, talks of the lessons learned, the firestorms weathered (including the Tongson Park/Koreagate scandal), the political enemies who were also fellow card players, golfers, and pals. He broke with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War but sympathized with what he regarded as the president’s impossible position. He calls Reagan “Attila the Movie Star” but admits Ron was a great guy after 6 pm. The only person about whom this O’Neill has nothing good to say is Newt Gingrich, a “wrecker,” not a “builder,” and therefore a lousy leader.
So, will According to Tip garner the warm reception outside Massachusetts that the New Rep audience accorded it? Listen, compared with last summer’s lusterless RFK, this show, which the production team hopes to cart to New York, DC, and Dublin, is sunshine with a shot of whiskey and a stogie. Especially given Howard’s warm, sly performance, and the intent to trim, it should prove to have legs — even if they stand sturdiest in O’Neill’s native soil. In Boston the great man — arguably a mastodon of New Deal liberalism by the time he hung up his influence and surrendered his gavel — has already been turned into a federal building and an expensive tunnel. Now he’s a one-man show. Which proves that honorees can come in small packages, too.
American Repertory Theatre hoisted the bubbly to Noël Coward in last year’s A Marvelous Party! This summer the troupe toasts Cole Porter in When It’s Hot, It’s Cole! (at Zero Arrow Club through July 20). But all is not bubbles and black tie when it comes to Porter, who asks, in “I Am in Love,” “Should I order cyanide/Or order champagne?” The question speaks to the tortured tone of many of the closeted composer’s love ballads, and it gleams persistently beneath this revue, even when the surface brims with the bravura intricacy of Porter’s fabled “list songs” and the quirkiness of novelty numbers from mostly forgotten shows, among them “I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland” from Porter’s first Broadway outing, the 1916 See America First, which lasted just 15 performances.