Bruce Graham’s Rizzo, now enjoying a revival by Philadelphia Theatre Company, is a curious theatrical phenomenon. As I suggested last year in my review of Theatre Exile’s original production, it’s not so much a play as a succession of talking heads arguing whether Philadelphia’s bellicose late mayor was a civic hero or a civic villain. It will never be performed anywhere but in Philadelphia, nor is it likely to be adapted for TV or the movies. For that matter, Rizzo is unlikely to appeal to Philadelphians under the age of 30. And future Philadelphians will surely respond to Rizzo much as Philadelphians today would react to a play about Arlen Specter or Hugh Scott. (If you can’t quite place these recent local political legends, I rest my case.)
What was that all about?
Yet for those Philadelphians who lived through the bizarre period between 1971 and 1991 when the real Frank Rizzo ran for mayor six times — diverting the civic energies of his supporters and critics alike to feed his seemingly insatiable appetite for combat and attention — Rizzo exerts an undeniable fascination. If the play fails to qualify as a tragedy, a romance, or a farce, it does provide a vehicle for Philadelphians of a certain age to reminisce together without rancor, now that the erstwhile object of their attention has been permanently removed from the scene.
Last Friday’s performance, for example, attracted a nearly full house of graying heads who, like me, had come to reconnect with old familiar faces, no matter whether they had once been friends or foes. I, whom Rizzo once sued unsuccessfully for libel, found myself kidding with Marty Weinberg (Rizzo’s political advisor), Jeff Batoff (son of Bill Batoff, Rizzo’s primary fund-raiser), and Elliot Curson (who created political ads for Rizzo). The draw that night was not so much the play as the post-performance panel discussion, pitting such former Rizzo acolytes as Weinberg and former Philadelphia managing director Hillel Levinson against Shelly Yanoff (who led the petition to recall Rizzo from office in 1975) and Bob Weinstein (who sued the city to racially integrate Rizzo’s police force). The evening put me in mind of the reunions of the Association of Montana Pioneers in the 1890s, at which aging outlaws, lawmen, vigilantes, and victims gathered to share memories and swap stories with their former enemies.
Then as now, these gatherings serve a useful purpose: to enable the survivors of a traumatic period to ask each other, “What was that all about?” and to remind each other that, at the end of the day, we’re all Philadelphians (or Montanans). Bruce Graham’s Rizzo poses no imminent threat to displace Macbeth or Oedipus Rex from the theatrical pantheon (a more creative writer, like, say, Dante, might have imagined a helmeted Rizzo, billy club in hand, kicking in the gates of Purgatory). On the other hand, Rizzo does demonstrate that there’s something to be said for narrow dramatic ambition, aimed at a narrow audience.