NEW YORK — 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.