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A CurtainUp Review

by Brad Bradley

History indicates that Teddy Roosevelt was a fiery public individual. In contrast, the career of the actor portraying him in Teddy Tonight!, Laurence Luckinbill, is anchored in more temperate characters, from the most unflamboyant individual in The Boys in the Band to a decidedly internalized writer in The Shadow Box to a more recent appearance as the gentle fruit seller Herr Schultz in the classic musical Cabaret. However, he has in recent years come out of the shadows as he has also fashioned an alternate performing career depicting famously high-profile men of the past in monologue form. Previously, he presented himself as the irascible Lyndon Johnson and the risk-taking attorney Clarence Darrow. Now, as ex-president Theodore Roosevelt in his newest self-written script, Luckinbill takes another shot at depicting a character with moral stands that echo his own, and in the process manages to be relevant, patriotic, and even bi-partisan. (T. R.'s dogged individualism regularly agitated members of both major parties with equal strength.)

Mr. Luckinbill begins his program in a friendly avuncular manner as himself, functioning as de facto house manager as he welcomes the audience members to listen, also encouraging them, in the most gentle manner imaginable, to turn off their electronic equipment. Before our eyes at a small vanity table, he transforms himself into T. R. by the simple addition of wig, mustache, and a bit of costume, advising us that he will be addressing some of the most difficult issues of Roosevelt's time and of our own time as well, including the nature of justice and the question "What does it mean to be an American?" The Roosevelt he puts on view is the man who had just lost his youngest son to war and was, at 60, suffering from gout and rheumatism as well as a lifelong asthma condition. He was, in fact, in the last 5 months of his life. While his September, 1918 public appearance, preceding a noteworthy armistice by less than two months, apparently was inspired by an actual speech Roosevelt delivered in New York at the time, Luckinbill's engrossing script (and richly affectionate portrayal) take the noted political iconoclast on assorted reminiscences of his entire life. Included are his childhood, education, early public service career, and his escapades as a naturalist, adventurer and political maverick that by a series of unexpected events led him to both the governorship of New York and the presidency of the nation.

Catapulted to the presidency by a fatal assassin's bullet to his predecessor McKinley in September 1901, T.R. became the youngest chief executive, a record yet to be broken. His views on women, welfare, human rights for blacks and other races, and political corruption remain liberal even by current standards, and generally were largely viewed as outrageous while he occupied the White House. Luckinbill is effective at T. R.'s vituperative rage at assorted injustices, and downright adorable as a doting father playing on the living room floor with his brood of children, acting under the assumed title of "vice-mother" while his adored wife was away from home. His concerns for health and fitness ("mind plus body equal success") are seen in his invitation to Japanese judo instructors to the White House, and his constant frustration to the "flub-dubs" of both major parties. We hear him exclaim "Bully!" more than a few times, and almost want to join with him in chorus on that now sweet-sounding expletive.

But the most resonant element of Teddy Tonight! is in its relevance to today's events, whether the alarm is Enron or Al Qaeda, or whether the target is Capitol Hill or the Middle East. The program's conclusion resonates on not only the war warnings of today, but also on the need for a perpetual reexamination of patriotism and how an individual citizen can and should be "a torchbearer for his country." Luckinbill, through T.R., gives us not only superb theater, but also the most vivid and valuable civics lesson available to any citizen of the planet who fortunately visits the Abingdon Theatre.

On a real estate postscript, the Abingdon Theatre Company is celebrating its 10th anniversary as well as the premiere offering in its new midtown home which has one of the coziest 99-seat auditoriums in the city, along with cabaret and studio theater spaces under development. The limited engagement of Teddy Tonight! is a fitting baptism of the newest Manhattan venue, also one of the borough's most congenial.

Written by and starring Laurence Luckinbill
Directed by Kim T. Sharp
Set Design: James F. Wolk
Lighting Design: David Castaneda
Running Time: 2 hours, plus 15-minute intermission
Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 W. 36th St. 212/206-1515
10/18/02-11/24/02. Tues-Sat at 7:30 pm, with matinees on Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm-- $19
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on October 20th performance.
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