The Pasadena Playhouse has reopened only nine months after the sad announcement that it was closing its doors for good, news worth celebrating in the streets with fireworks to light up the sky. If only FDR, the production chosen to welcome back Playhouse subscribers and friends, were equally deserving of a celebration.

Reopening the Playhouse with Ed Asner’s solo performances as Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes perfect sense on paper. Asner is a household name, beloved for his years as Lou Grant in both sit-comedic and dramatic form. At 80, the multiple Emmy-winner is a contemporary of many longtime Playhouse subscribers, Pasadenians old enough to have childhood or teenage memories of the 32nd President of the United States. With its single cast member and simple set, FDR makes good economic sense as well, and it’s prepackaged, the production having already been staged in Wisconsin and Florida.

Asner plays FDR with energy, dynamism, and commitment, but is physically such a different type than the real Roosevelt that even with a white wig covering his bald pate, the person you see on stage rarely comes across as FDR himself.

Still, the problem with FDR is not Asner, miscast or not, but rather the play itself, one which has been adapted (though no adaptor is credited) from Dore Schary’s Sunrise At Campobello, a 1958 Broadway blockbuster with a cast of twenty. As a solo play, FDR has Asner playing scene after scene opposite imaginary figures only he can see or hear. As for its subject matter, FDR’s battle with polio may have made for great theater in its original production (with a perfectly cast Ralph Bellamy, who later recreated the role on film), but as a one-man-show it doesn’t work. A contemporary playwright could probably create a gripping solo piece about Roosevelt, looking back with a 21st Century perspective on his achievements in defeating the Great Depression and his leadership during World War II. Much could also be said about FDR’s relationship with wife Eleanor, or about his rumored long-term affair with Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd. We ought to be on the edge of our seats instead of looking at our watches.

Curiously, FDR ends its story two decades after Sunrise At Campobello’s final scenes, leading one to wonder who wrote all of FDR’s post-1924 sequences. FDR is also the first production I can recall seeing at the Pasadena Playhouse, or at any L.A. Equity house for that matter, in which no director is credited with helming the production. There is no credited lighting designer, set designer, sound designer, or costume designer either. Allan Williams is given program credit as dramaturg. Ron Nash is production supervisor and production stage manager.

Next up at the Pasadena Playhouse is Uptown Downtown, an musical evening with Leslie Uggams which garnered raves earlier this year at New York’s Lincoln Center and Café Carlisle. Perhaps the Playhouse should have waited a month and reopened with Leslie. I for one can’t wait to see the star of the 2009 smash Stormy Weather back once again on the Pasadena Playhouse stage.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
–Steven Stanley
October 19, 2010
Photos: The Theatre Guild

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