Politics offers no heroes in Richard Wesley’s new play, “Autumn.”
Franklyn Longley (Jerome Preston Bates) is a four-term mayor of a metropolis in the northern part of a state divided as much by regional allegiance as by geography. He wants to be his state’s first black governor and believe he’s earned that place in history based on his record of significant accomplishments.
Wesley sets several wheels in motion in “Autumn,” now at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theater. Not only does he depict the inner workings of political machines and loyalties, he shows how politics and leadership have changed through generations. One of his primary threads is how time may have passed Longley by. He is, as the incumbent governor (Terria Joseph) says, “old-school,” as she is, and may not be suited for a game younger contenders play differently — especially when you add transparency and scrutiny, by rivals and the press, into the equation.
Wesley paints Longley as a complex figure who can be roundly lauded his achievements and roundly slapped for his firm, non-collegial wielding of power, some dubious methods he used to maintain that power, and his open disdain for anyone who has the nerve to disagree with him publicly, thwart a pet project, or omit him from any decisive loop.
Politics is only one arena in which Longley has challenges to consider. His wife of many years (Kim West0n-Moran) is unhappy and wants to leave him. She says she will stick with him through the governor’s race, but as soon as he loses at any stage, he loses her. She also walks if he attains election.
Blood is also an issue with Longley’s veteran chief of staff (Count Stovall), a man who has kept the mayor as honest as possible while doing his strong-arming. His son (Michael Chenevert) is the current governor’s anointed successor and likely to get his dying father’s support.
Politicians and the judicial system may look at Longley monolithically, but Wesley primes his audience to take in the whole picture. He asks us to consider whether someone as effective as Longley deserves credit and reverence for his achievements or whether his cavalier, almost autocratic, style and questionable means of wrenching progress into being have been too heavy-handed, too tainted, and too undemocratic to be tolerated let alone extolled.
“Autumn” is thought-provoking. Though Wesley works in broad strokes and likes to spring surprises that sway you in Longley’s case, he delineates several matters that warrant discussion — even if they aren’t settled to any conclusion within it. Besides the subjects of promotion, loyalty, successful management, backroom politics, and modes of governing, Wesley addresses the development of black leadership. That includes whether the issues of Longley’s youth remain the concerns of minorities, black and otherwise, particularly Latino, and whether Longley is a dinosaur, as both his name and the title, “Autumn,” imply. Even if a dinosaur, should his reward for all he advanced be a silent consenting retirement or a term in jail?
“Autumn” is at times too cut-and-dried for its own good. Wesley builds cases for and against Longley, but the preponderance of evidence he presents leads us as witnesses when ambivalence may have been preferable.
It is possible that all with which Wesley endows Longley is true of everyone in politics and most who have attained a high place — political, corporate, or ecclesiastical — but Wesley also shows a new breed emerging in Chenevert’s Ronald Drayton, a state assemblyman who is black but more attuned to general concerns than solely African-American issues, and who is blameless in the way he’s gained attention. It is ironic that Longley has plans for Drayton before he learns he also seeks the coveted nomination.
Wesley in ways undercuts the complexity of Longley and his overall story by being increasingly partisan in attacking him as “Autumn” proceeds. You need to see Longley’s warts and wrinkles, but Wesley’s play worked better when it centered on one kind of politics vs. another. It becomes more pat as Longley’s integrity fades with his hopes to be governor.
“Autumn’s” most interesting subplot involves Tricia Johnson (Stephanie Berry), a homeless woman who protests Longley’s mayoralty loudly and with her five children has pitched a tent on the City Hall steps. Watching Longley deal with Tricia is quite telling and could influence your attitude about him in either direction. Scenes with Longley and his wife have drama but fall flat. In the first scene in which she appears, it took me a second to figure out if she was Longley’s spouse or his aide’s. The acts of the dying elder Drayton bring a noble character to the fore, but one Wesley eventually uses as a device that plays too conveniently.
Despite flaws, Wesley’s play holds intense interest and may be more valuable for the ideas it stimulates than for the ones it depicts. Seret Scott’s direction — with realistic and unobtrusive sets, costumes, lighting, and sound — concentrates on “Autumn’s” intensity and layers of pertinent material.
Jerome Preston Bates is an actor as complicated as his character. A man of magnitude with a big voice and posture that conveys power, Bates is given to odd readings, as if he’s crafting a line rather than speaking it in conversation. In the long run, he distinctly shows every facet of Longley, and his performance has majesty even as you wonder about a phrasing here and there.
Stephanie Berry’s sincerity — her care to be more than a woman on welfare even as circumstances defeat her — is touching and has a deep core of reality.
Count Stovall is dignified and has the certainty in line delivery Bates lacks. He brings a grandeur to Zack Drayton that speaks volumes about the goodness inherent in the character. Michael Chenevert is a good foil for Longley and has moving scenes with his father. Kim Weston-Moran elicits all the intrinsic drama from her scenes. Terria Joseph is straightforward as the governor. And Joseph Mancuso is authentic as a businessman currying Longley’s favor.
Autumn, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 3, 10 a.m. Wednesday, 10 a.m., Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. $45 to $25. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.