RIZZO  by Bruce Graham

directed by Joe Canuso


Theater Exile & Philadelphia Theatre Company

Suzanne Roberts Theatre, extended through Oct. 23

“Love me or hate me… you will never forget me.” So promised legendary Philly mayor Frank Rizzo used at a climatic end line Bruce Graham’s bio-play Rizzo.  Indeed, Rizzo’s rep lives on. At the 2016 Dem Convention in Philadelphia, members of Black Lives Matter placed a KKK hood over the Rizzo statue near City Hall to remind all what Rizzo represented to Philly’s African American population.

Rizzo premiered last year at Theater Exile and the revival with the same cast co-presented at The Roberts Theater by Philadelphia Theater Company.  The Mummers were in the lobby posing with former mayor Ed Rendell, who recounted a few stories about being DA under Rizzo before the play.

As police chief Rizzo was a flashpoint of racial and minority divides and his police state tactics continued when he became mayor.  White majority voters of the time elected him twice to ‘clean up the city’ and shut down crime, despite his own infamous scandals, like his lie-detector stunt which proved he lied, his flagrant cronyism and other abuses of office.

Graham’s explores the dualities of Rizzo’s character as well as the good, bad and ugly of Rizzo’s political life.  RIZZO debuted at Theater Exile last, directed by Joe Canuso and starring Scott Greer as Frank and Damon Bonetti as a political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who covered Rizzo’s years in office.

The story is told in flashback as Rizzo is mounting his 3rd term bid for office. Rizzo tries is muscling a police officer to swear an affidavit that he saw his opponent Ron Castille drunk and out of control. The highs and lows of his career are depicted in flashbacks about his life growing up in South Philly, becoming a beat cop, then police commissioner, and then twice mayor.

‘The showdowns in black neighborhoods, his routine raids on gay bars and hauling in “faggots” in Center City.  He calls on unions to shut down the Philadelphia Inquirer to prevent papers getting out an unflattering story. His enemies list and his publicity stunts to a lie detector test and Rizzo is exposed. Meanwhile, his affability in many neighborhoods and his personal touch out of the public arena, kept him in power.

Graham covers these episodes, many of them ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’, some with more fluency and dramatic fire than others, more consistently interesting is the private man. Graham builds a portrait of Rizzo as not just political myopic, but a man of uncontrolled impulses, private doubts and not to mention an untamable mouth.

One of the strongest scenes is the newly appointed Police commissioner being dressed down by his father, a beat cop, for using bullying tactics, including striking a “hooker” and giving her stitches.   And all too brief scenes with his wife Carmela.  His chess game with the reporter, also in clipped scenes, is eclipsed by big events.  So Graham constructs an erratic theatrical arc. But, they don’t overshadow the play’s many strengths, starting with a great cast.

Director Canuso keeps everything moving with invention and but Graham’s over use of characters describing action, rather than dialogue scenes, but the cast ably glides through some heavy handed monologues.

Damon Bonetti, in a largely narrating role, until the second act, brings wit and naturalism to this old –style nice guy reporter who still keeps digging until he has the real story.   Amanda Schoonover plays all the women’s roles, most impressive in her instant range from the protective Carmela Rizzo to Shelly Yanoff who took Rizzo on by gathering petitions for an election recall of his win.

All of the supporting players Steven Wright, Robert DaPonte, Paul L. Nolan, William Rahill juggling also juggling multiple roles with ensemble ease.  Wright a standout in his wry portrait of black civic leader Cecile B. Moore who goes head to head with Rizzo over the strife he causes in North Philly.

But the night belongs to Scott Greer, a fine musical theater actor, a five time Barrymore Award winner adds another portrait of flawless performances of a complex man.  His Frank accent perfect, without trying to imitate Rizzo, and embodies the image and conveys the inner turmoil of his many masks.