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Stage Review : 'Harry' Is Giving 'em Hell Again In Pasadena

March 05, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Remember when the buck stopped here? Those who do will get a kick out of meeting Harry Truman again at the Pasadena Playhouse (through Sunday). And those who don't will be interested to find out what Presidents used to be made of.

Kevin McCarthy plays H.S.T. in this edition of "Give 'Em Hell, Harry." McCarthy wasn't as sharp as he should have been opening night, as can happen when an actor gets too familiar with his material. He's been touring the show for eight years, off and on, and that describes his concentration on Tuesday. Perhaps playwright-director Sam Gallu should drop in for a brush-up rehearsal.

But Harry himself was awfully sharp. There is nothing as bracing as hearing a man speak his mind. Particularly when he has a mind.

Harry doesn't mince words in this show. Whether every word in the script is actually his has never been verified by playwright Gallu. But it certainly sounds like him. He tears into his adversaries with relish--the big money boys, the big labor boys, the boys at the big foundations, the music critics.

But there's no malice in it. (Except when he brings up that business about Ike's wanting to leave Mamie. He never did forgive Ike for turning Republican.) McCarthy makes it clear that H.S.T. ran on positive energy. What he was for was more exciting to him than what he was against.

What he was principally for was the Constitution. One would think that McCarthy's H.S.T. had drafted it himself; he's so proud of it and has such a grasp of it. We're reminded that Harry didn't just give 'em hell. He could cite 'em precedent.

He knew how the American government had been designed; how carefully it had been balanced; how much strain it could take.

When Gen. MacArthur steps out of line, Harry isn't just miffed personally; he's offended that the man shows so little understanding of the system. When the Supreme Court slaps him down for trying to take over the railroads, he's secretly pleased. It shows they're paying attention.

He also understands how much strain he can take. Every once in a while, he tells us, he has to get back to Independence, to bring things "down to scale." It's not a folksy remark designed to play in the heartlands. Harry really believed that the President was meant to be a citizen who served his time in the White House and then went home. That's why he licks his own postage stamps (or rather, licks the corner of the envelope and sticks the stamp on it--every man does things in his own way.) It's a way of reminding himself that a President isn't a king. It's also a way of "striking a blow for liberty," his phrase for lifting a few with Sam Rayburn. Harry doesn't want to leave the Oval Office owing anything to anybody--not even postage.

McCarthy is the last actor in the world whom one would have picked to play H.S.T. Too tall. Too handsome. Too citified. But somehow McCarthy, even with his line bobbles, has no trouble yielding the floor to his colleague from Missouri. We see Harry. We hear him.

We see him more deeply than before. Some actors have played H.S.T. with such unalleviated pep that they wore you out, like a salesman who keeps on talking even after he has sold you the encyclopedia.

McCarthy's Truman certainly has a lot of vigor. He loves his job, loves his family, feels he's made some pretty good choices throughout his life, particularly the choice to meet a problem head-on, instead of trying to finesse it.

He no longer feels that the sun, moon and stars have fallen on him. He's as on top of things in the White House as a man can be--and who can ask for more? When he chats with F.D.R.'s ghost about the A-bomb, or with Herbert Hoover (equally invisible) about world hunger, he does so as an equal. When he grins, you almost expect him to say: "Bully!"

But there's a sensitivity here, too. This is a Truman who understands Hoover's tears when he's offered a modicum of respect, and who understands the implications of dropping the Bomb. Interestingly, what he scorns most about the Ku Klux Klan is its "vulgarity." Beneath the haberdasher's pep, this is a refined man. Just don't criticize his daughter's singing.

Did Truman really use the word jockstrap in that letter to music critic Paul Hume? I seem to recall another wording. This doesn't give you confidence in the absolute accuracy of Gallu's script. But "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" mostly gets Harry right, and his frankness is a tonic.

Performances are at 8 p.m. today and Friday, at 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20-$25. 39 S. El Molino Ave. Pasadena. (818) 356-PLAY.

Next on the Playhouse's "Great Performance" series: Peggy Lee (March 10-15.)

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